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Exercise Adherence

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Getting Beyond Getting Started

So you’ve started, or you’re considering starting, an exercise program.  How confident are you that you’ll still be routinely exercising one year from now?  Six months hence?  One month?  One week?  A couple of days?

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the benefits of routine exercise.  Yet, approximately half of those who begin exercise programs drop out within the first six months.  Commonly cited reasons include lack of time, inconvenience, expense, physical discomfort, embarrassment, poor instruction, inadequate support, and loss of interest.

Fortunately, certain factors can be addressed to help your chances of developing the habit of exercise:

Situation Factors Affecting Exercise Adherence & Motivation

By knowing the situations or environments in which you enjoy exercise, you can put yourself in those situations as often as possible. The following headings address areas which must be addressed in order to maximize your exercise adherence:

Personal Factors Affecting Exercise Adherence & Motivation

By understanding more about yourself, you can more successfully handle the inevitable difficult situations.  Therefore, in addition to paying attention to the situational factors encompassing your exercise program, attention should also be devoted to the following personal factors and capabilities:


Situation Factors Affecting Exercise Adherence


Time management is an important part of everyone's life and finding time to exercise is vital if an exercise program is to be adhered to. According to ACSM guidelines, workout time should be approximately 20 to 60 minutes, although this can be revised depending on whether an individual exercises more than 3-5 times a week or less than 3-5 times a week. Having said that, exercise adherence is compromised if workout times exceed 60 minutes.

In scheduling your workout time it is important to allow a good period of time before and after your workout for travel time, changing, showering etc. These considerations should be incorporated into your overall time set aside for exercise. If you are not relaxed or feel hurried when working out you are less likely to enjoy you workout and so will be less likely to adhere to your program in the future.

It is a good idea to set aside specific times in the week when you can exercise free from any possible time conflicts. Getting into a weekly exercise routine with which you feel comfortable will aid in your exercise adherence.


These days, being a member of a gym or a health club is an expensive business. But a lack of finances is no reason not to exercise. There are many activities which one can do to exercise which cost little or no money and that can be done without having to purchase expensive equipment.

Walking, jogging or running can all be done in your own neighborhood or in your local park for free. Cycling can also be relatively inexpensive with the purchase of a 2nd hand bicycle. There are also ways of using everyday household objects, such as tinned foods as weights or the stairs in your house, to exercise.

Correct instruction can be obtained from books available at your local library and many affordable public sports facilities and recreation centers have trained individuals who can assist you in designing an appropriate exercise program.


Lack of energy is often cited as an excuse for not exercising. Although there will be days when you don't feel like exercising because you are too tired or lack energy, it is important to try and do part of your exercise program, or run through your workout at a lower intensity level.

Exercise will very often revitalize you and enable you to complete your program as normal. It is important that you identify in which part of the day you feel most energized so that you can schedule your workout around that time. Some people prefer to exercise in the early morning, some later at night. Try to arrange your weekly schedule so that you can exercise when you feel most able to exercise.

Nutrition plays an importnat part in exercise. Meal times can often physiologically affect your energy levels. It is important that you don't feel hungry while working out as this will psychologically and physiologically detract from your exercise focus. In saying this, it is also important that you don't exercise immediately after eating a large meal.

Role Conflict

Role conflict refers to time management. It can be in the form of work related commitments, family commitments or other extra-curricular commitments. Unfortunately the time available in any day is not unlimited so scheduling your activities is vital if you are to find time to regularly exercise.

If you take your children to sports praxes or to an after school club every week, you should try to find a convenient facility close to that location where you can exercise. It may be more convenient to find an exercise facility close to your work place.

If you are serious about adhering to your exercise program it may be necessary to forgo another extra-curricular activity in order to make time to exercise. You have to identify where you priorities lie and be prepared to possibly make sacrifices.

Social Support

Good social support is vital for good exercise adherence. You must have the backing of you family and friends if you are going to remain faithful to your exercise program.

Your family must be aware that there may be occasions when you will be home late or up early in order to exercise. Your spouse, in particular, must be understanding and accepting of this. Your friends must also be supportive and should try to avoid scheduling events which may interfere with your exercise time.

It is up to you to make sure that your family and friends understand how important your exercise program is to you. That way, you can avoid any potential conflicts of distractions which will affect your exercise adherence.

Exercising With Others

Depending on your personal preference, exercising with others can greatly improve your exercise adherence. This can be either by taking part in group exercise classes or by having a training partner.

Having a regularly scheduled exercise time, at which others are depending on you, is and excellent way of ensuring that you maintain high exercise adherence. If you have arranged to exercise with a training partner, you are more likely to keep that appointment rather than miss it and let someone else down. Having a training partner keeps you honest. Knowing that you will let someone else down, in addition to yourself, by missing a workout session, is very good motivation for high exercise adherence.

The same is true if you take part in a group exercise class. If you miss a class you normally have to explain the reason for your absence to others. The fear of this embarrassment is often enough to maintain high exercise adherence, which is the desired outcome.

Exercising with others is something to consider if you feel that you may not adhere to your exercise program if you workout alone.


Finding the right facilities in which to exercise is vital for the enjoyment and hence adherence to exercise. In general, this relates to a gym or a health club. In choosing a place to to exercise, the facilities must be affordable and in a convenient location, perhaps close to your home or to your workplace.

You must feel comfortable with your surroundings; this is vital. You should understand how to use the facilities, where everything is located, and where to get assistance if you require it. You must find the staff of the facility friendly, approachable and sensitive to your needs. You must also feel at ease in their company.

If you prefer to exercise when the facilities are less crowded, try to find out when the best time is and if it fits into you weekly schedule.


The climate in which we exercise is very influential in terms of exercise adherence. When choosing an exercise, it is very important to consider how the climate will affect you exercise adherence. It can often be the case that inclement weather can prevent you from exercising. This is especially relevant to outdoor exercises such as running, cycling or outdoor team sports.

The weather, be it too hot or too cold, too dry or too wet, can prevent facilities being usable. It may also compromise your health to exercise in inclement weather. Individuals with allergies may not be able to exercise outdoors during pollen season; individuals with pulmonary diseases may be unable to exercise comfortably in cold dry conditions; and exercising in cold, wet weather is often the cause of the onset of common colds and respiratory infections.

The kind of climate in which you live must be considered carefully when deciding what kind of exercise program is suitable for you. It may be better to exercise at a sports center or in some kind of internal environment when the weather is bad, but then take it outside when the weather improves. There may be isolated occasions when the weather may prevent you from following your normal outdoor exercise routine. In these instances, you can take your exercise routine inside.

All these considerations can greatly help your exercise adherence if taken into consideration. By being able to maintain a regular exercise routine, irrespective of the weather, you can ensure that you have high exercise adherence.

Physical Discomfort

Do you find yourself wanting to exercise, but deciding to forego the whole deal to avoid the discomfort of it all?  Well, understand that exercise is not easy, or it wouldn't be exercise at all!  Rather, there is an inherent amount of discomfort associated with exercise.  Note the word ‘discomfort' as opposed to pain.  It is important to be able to distinguish between the two, as any pain experienced may warrant a visit to your physician.  But a bit of discomfort is normal to an extent, it's just up to you to do what you can to minimize it.

A few tips for minimizing discomfort.  Always include warm-up and cool down sessions in exercise.  These sessions should use large muscle group motions and incorporate stretching.  If you're a beginner, or starting a new exercise program, start off slowly and gradually make increases in intensity, resistance, duration, etc.  Your body needs time to adjust.  Understand that you're expected to breathe harder as you work harder; learn to distinguish normal breathing during exercise as opposed to shortness of breath, hyperventilation, etc.

Personal Factors Affecting Exercise Adherence

Awareness of Personality

Personality, what makes you uniquely you, is an interrelated combination of your body, your thoughts, and your behaviors.  To help you learn more about the person you currently are, you might try taking a personality test online:

Furthermore, how you explain, or to what you attribute, your successes and failures may tell you something about your personality.  Consider the following three questions:

(1) Do you tend to see your exercise adherence, or lack there of, as permanent or as changeable?
(2) Do you attribute your adherence, or lack thereof, to things primarily within your control or outside your control?
(3) Do you attribute your adherence, or lack thereof, to internal characteristics or external circumstances?

Explaining a lack of adherence or motivation as permanent and beyond your control diminishes your expectations; perhaps to the point of feeling helpless.  Attributing failures to internal characteristics may result in feelings of guilt or shame; attributing failures to external circumstances may provide a way to avoid such feelings.  Alternatively, explaining a lack of adherence or motivation as changeable and within your control provides a sense of empowerment; increasing the expectation of success.  Attributing successes to internal characteristics may lead to feelings of pride or a sense of accomplishment; attributing successes to external circumstances may bring a sense of luck or humility.

Finally, analyzing your expectations can tell you something about your personality.  An individual with expectations of success is often referred to as having a high degree of self-confidence or self-efficacy; an individual with expectations of failure is often referred to as having a low degree of self-confidence or self-efficacy.  What are your expectations regarding the exercise program you have just started or are considering starting?

At least four things can help improve your self-confidence in regard to your exercise program:

(1) prior successes;
(2) role models
(3) verbal persuasion; and
(4) emotional arousal.

In achieving your prior successes or overcoming prior challenges, are there things you did that might help you stick with your exercise program?  Do you know others who have successfully added the habit of exercise into their lives?  Are there others who can give you support and encouragement?  Finally, are you aware of your emotional arousal?  Or do you only appreciate after the fact how you may have felt worried or confidently under control, anxious or relaxed, aroused or bored?  Your awareness of and your ability to regulate such emotions can improve your self-confidence or self-efficacy and increase the likelihood that you’ll stick with your exercise program.

Goal Setting

Setting goals can be an effective way to enhance your motivation and improve the likelihood that you’ll develop the habit of exercise.  However, to be most effective:

(1) your goals should be specific;
(2) your goals should be realistic; and
(3) your goals should include outcomes and tasks.

Common reasons for exercising include wanting to lose weight or bodyfat or get in better shape.  To improve your chances of success, be more specific.  If you want to lose weight or bodyfat, how much do you want to lose?  By when?  Perhaps there are clothes you’d like to fit into by a certain date?  In any case, specific goals are measurable.  At a certain time in the future you will be able to determine very clearly and easily whether or not you’ve met your goal.

In addition to being specific, your goals should be challenging but realistic.  If a goal requires you to make dramatic changes to well-established habits, you will be much less likely to succeed.  Setting overzealous goals may tell you something about your personality.  You increase your chances of success by attempting to make gradual changes.  If you’ve been relatively sedentary for a while, consider introducing exercise to three or four days out of the week.  Focus first on getting exercise on those days; then gradually increase the duration and/or the intensity of your exercise.  Alternatively, if you don’t have the time or the inclination for an exercise program, perhaps you can set specific goals involving how you can incorporate greater physical activity into your daily routine.

Whether or not you reach a specific and realistic outcome within an allotted period of time may to some degree be affected by circumstances beyond your control.  To increase your chances of ultimate success, your goals should include both outcomes and tasks.  Tasks are the behaviors you will do in order to achieve your outcome goal.  For example, your outcome goal might involve fitting into a specific outfit or a pair of jeans or losing ten pounds in twelve weeks.  Your task goals might then include specific behaviors like walking for thirty minutes three or four times a week, taking the steps instead of the elevator everyday at work, and eating an appropriate balanced diet.

Once you’ve set specific and realistic goals that include both outcomes and tasks, you might consider setting them out in an exercise contract.  In so doing, you promise to perform your task goals in order to achieve your specific and realistic outcome goals by a certain date.  Furthermore, you can promise yourself that if you meet such goals then you will give yourself a specific reward.  Alternatively, you might consider memorizing your goals so that you can recite them from memory.


You might use your imagination to improve your exercise adherence and motivation.  While goal setting can involve rational, careful planning of tasks and outcomes, the effective use of imagery or visualization can help involve all of your senses.  For example, perhaps your goals involve reaching the weight you were when you graduated from high school or college.  To use imagery or visualization, you attempt to remember what you looked like; how it felt; what you liked to do.  Maybe you can remember the smell of the freshly mowed grass in the park you used to walk through or maybe you can remember the feel of having a lively, easy stride.  The most effective use of imagery taps into all of your senses; making images as vivid and detailed as possible. Furthermore, the effective use of imagery requires that you learn how to control your images to focus on positive outcomes.  Thus, such positive imagery can be used to help you relax in response to emotional anxiety; thereby helping you stay focused on your exercise goals.  For example, if you are stressed out and feel like skipping a workout, you can try to think back to a particular workout that you really enjoyed; how great it felt; and how great you felt when it ended.

Arousal Regulation and Concentration

What you do in a given situation is often affected by what you feel.  Therefore, your ability to recognize and regulate your emotional arousal can help you stay focused on your goals.

You can assess your state of emotional arousal along a continuum ranging from boredom at one extreme to anxiety at the other extreme.  In between the two extremes you might feel relaxed, under control, worried, or nervous.  Where along the continuum you are best able to stay focused may depend upon your personality and the specific situation in which you find yourself.  As you approach either extreme, boredom or anxiety, you are more likely to lose appropriate focus.  If you begin to find your exercise program boring, or alternatively if you begin to worry too much about your exercise program, you decrease the likelihood that you will develop the habit of exercise.

So if you begin feeling bored, perhaps you can introduce new settings, new challenges, or different exercises like.  If you begin feeling too anxious there are many techniques you might use to regulate your arousal and help maintain appropriate focus.  One of these techniques involves progressive muscle relaxation; in which you briefly tense and then relax various muscle groups within your body.  Other techniques involve breath control; in which you breath slowly, deeply, and deliberately.  Ultimately, you can learn to use such techniques as automatic, learned responses to feelings of stress or anxiety.


Exercise Contract

WHEREAS it is established that routine exercise may benefit me physically, mentally, and emotionally, AND WHEREAS the American College of Sports Medicine cites a sedentary lifestyle as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, AND WHEREAS the 1996 Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assert that previously sedentary people can improve their health and well-being by becoming even moderately active on a regular basis,
I, ________________________________________, DO HEREBY PLEDGE TO THE FOLLOWING GOALS:
Specific and Realistic Outcome Goal # 1                                                     By When?

Task Goals to Accomplish Outcome Goal # 1

Specific and Realistic Outcome Goal # 2                                                     By When?

Task Goals to Accomplish Outcome Goal # 2

Specific and Realistic Outcome Goal # 3                                                     By When?

Task Goals to Accomplish Outcome Goal # 3

SWORN AND SIGNED BEFORE ME:                                         PLEDGED:

__________________________________                                    __________________________________
                           (witness)                                                                                           (promissor)

THIS _____ DAY OF __________, _____                                    THIS _____ DAY OF __________, _____


Go to The Exercise and Physical Fitness Home Page

The Exercise and Physical Fitness Web Page is an ongoing project by graduate students in the Master of Science program in Exercise Science in the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Georgia State University. This project was created by J. Andrew Doyle, PhD, and was last modified on: April 29, 1999.