How to Stick to an Exercise Routine

woman exercising

Many people struggle to adhere to an exercise routine. Researchers are beginning to unravel what makes us more likely to stick to a workout regime and what strategies we can employ to boost our willpower.

A key is having the confidence that you can do it, a new study shows. The researchers call this type of focused confidence "self-efficacy." "You can apply the concept of self-efficacy to every single health behavior you can think of, because in many ways that really is what gets us through the day, gets us through the tough times," said Edward McAuley, a University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor who led the research. "People who are more efficacious tend to approach more challenging tasks, work harder and stick with it even in the face of early failures." All is not lost, however, for those unable to muster self-efficacy, McAuley said. Research has shown that there are ways to increase your confidence in relation to specific goals. Sticking to it Those lacking the confidence to accomplish something often won't even try to start a new routine, or will quit at the earliest sign of difficulty, McAuley said. Strategies that you can employ to increase your self-efficacy include remembering previous successes, observing others doing something you find daunting, and enlisting others' support. After you start, every step toward your goal will further increase your confidence, McAuley said. In the new study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, McAuley and his colleagues identified specific cognitive abilities and strategies that enhanced older adults' ability to stay with an exercise program. The researchers conducted a battery of cognitive tests on 177 men and women in their 60s and early 70s, and also asked them whether and how often they set goals for themselves, monitored their own progress, managed their time and engaged in other "self-regulatory" behaviors. "These self-regulatory processes are really concerned with our ability to plan, to schedule physical activity into our daily life, to inhibit undesirable responses such as sitting in front of the TV when you could be out working in your yard or walking around the block," McAuley said. "These processes can be measured in a very objective way." Self-efficacious mind-set Participants were randomly assigned to either a walking program or a stretching, toning and balance program, that met three times a week for a year. Their self-efficacy was assessed after three weeks in the program. Those who stuck to their program were the ones who were better able to multitask and better control their undesirable behaviors, the researchers found. And those who more frequently set goals, managed their time, monitored their own behaviors and recruited others for support had greater participation in the program. "We can potentially use this information to identify who might be poor adherers to an exercise program," McAuley said, "and then offer those people an array of different coping skills and strategies to inhibit or overcome bad behaviors." Pass it on: Building your confidence in your ability to exercise could help you stick to an exercise routine.

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