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Exercise Behavior Psychology. Important!

Exercise Behavior Psychology. Important!

Motivation is usually high when people come to action as losing weight, improving health, or getting stronger gain priority over other activities.

However… time and again the same patterns repeat – motivation dwindles as priorities shift and soon enough exercise becomes an occasional activity at best; ‘next time I’ll try harder.’

The pattern of engagement and disengagement manifests in the attendance (who shows up) and retention (who re-joins) data of fitness clubs worldwide. Highly motivated new members attend regularly over the first few weeks of their membership.


Initially, motivation gets them through and by attending they benefit from the support and encouragement of gym staff. But as motivation dwindles, the barriers that were initially able to be overcome start to interfere and attendance dries up. Without attendance, there is less opportunity to be noticed by, and gain the support of the gym staff.

This problem occurs because we treat behavioral science as the unpopular cousin of exercise science. Exercise programs and WODs (Workouts of the Day) command more attention than the awkward, ‘touchy-feely’ stuff of trying to understand and support people.

For the vast majority, exercise behaviors don’t just happen; they need to be built. Unless they are built, with intent, people have little chance of gaining the benefits that exercise offers. In this sense, working on behavior is more important than just ‘working out’. Because without one, the other seldom happens.

If we’re going to help others gain the benefits of exercise (or gain those benefits for ourselves), then we need to spend some time learning about how behaviors are built.

To understand behavior, you need to look under the hood

Everything we do, think, and feel is governed by one organ – the brain. Weighing in at little more than 1.3kg, this phenomenal organ:

  • Makes up less than 2% of the average humans bodyweight but demands 20% of the body’s energy
  • Is made up of approximately 86 billion (86,000,000,000) functional units (neurons), and 85-86 billion glial cells which support those neurons
  • Has trillions of connections between neurons (synapses), over which information is communicated
  • Has over 100 specialized chemicals (neurotransmitters) which pass information from neuron to neuron; some increasing communication, some reducing it, and some ‘balancing’ it out to moderate our moods and behaviors.


There’s more to the brain than what’s on the surface

The capacity and complexity of the human brain is staggering; so for this small section we’re going to limit ourselves to looking at the differences between what’s known as the cortex vs. the sub-cortex, and the concept of the conscious vs. subconscious brain, as they relate to efficiency and behavior.

The cortex (known correctly as the cerebral cortex) refers to the superficial layer of the brain. It’s distinguishable by the ‘hills and valleys’ (sulci and gyri) we see when we look externally at a brain. Higher level functions such as planning, problem solving, reasoning, evaluation and critical thinking occur in the cortex, in particular its frontal regions. As such, neuroscientists refer to the cortex as ‘the seat of consciousness’.

Consciousness refers to the portion of our reality that we feel aware of and in direct control over.

It’s important to note that the cortex has an average thickness of only 2.5mm (yes, millimeters, not centimeters). Quite simply, there’s a lot more to the brain than what’s on the surface. The vast majority of the brain is sub-cortical (beneath the cortex). Where the cortex is considered the seat of consciousness, the sub-cortex is home to the ‘subconscious’. This refers to the portion of our reality that we are not fully aware of, or do not feel that we have direct and complete control over.

The iceberg analogy is useful here; the tip of the iceberg represents the cortex and our consciousness, while the bulk of the iceberg represents the sub-cortex and our subconscious.

Most of what we do, think, and feel is governed by the sub-cortex and our subconscious

Consider walking home from work. Consciously, I might be planning my key work tasks for the following day. Subconsciously, my brain will be receiving and acting on masses of sensory information from the environment.

In response to fading light, messages will be sent to my pupils telling them to dilate and allow more light to enter the eye. The action of hundreds of muscles will be perfectly regulated to enable me to move fluidity as I walk over different terrain.


My heart and breathing rates will be regulated to provide my muscles with fuel and expel waste products (CO2). And without consciously thinking about it, my mood could range from upbeat and happy through to sad and depressed depending on any number of factors from my past, present, or perceived future.

Creating an exercise behavior requires control to be transferred to the sub-cortex

The reason that most neural activity occurs in the sub-cortex boils down to efficiency.

Higher level conscious tasks demand a lot of energy to deal with the unknown or the complex. At a neural level, thousands, if not millions of connections need to be made, broken, and/or refined in the process of learning how to address such tasks.

In comparison, the simpler tasks controlled by the subconscious brain are far more efficient. At a neural level, the connections have already been made and refined; there is no need to waste energy through the process of learning or analysis. These tasks occur efficiently, when necessary, without requiring permission from head office (the cortex). In the case of regulating the heart or breathing rates, the benefit of this should be reasonably obvious; you don’t want delays when it comes to essential functions.

When it comes to building a new exercise behavior, the initial planning, implementation, and problem-solving tasks involve conscious activity in the cortex. However, the ability to fulfill the mission of creating a behavior depends on how well control of the behavior can be transferred to the sub-cortex; because in our modern, high stress society the capacity restricted cortex has a never-ending list of demands placed on it.

If we want to help people build sustainable exercise behaviors, the more automatic or ‘habitual’ we can make those behaviors, the better.

Behaviors are built through repeated actions

Exercise behaviors always start as individual actions. Unfortunately, many ‘would be’ behaviors don’t make it past this action stage. Actions refer to things we do once, twice, or even a few times, but not consistently. Going for a run is an action, going to the gym to workout is an action. These actions can’t be considered as ‘behaviors’ until they are repeated consistently over time.


At the neural level, such actions are governed by the conscious brain; they’re novel and require elements of planning, problem solving and reasoning to enact. The neural pathways/connections that enable the action to be completed are in the process of developing. The thinking at this stage could be ‘I’m going to the gym tonight because I really need to get fit and drop this winter fat. I need to remember to pack my gym gear and a towel and a pre-workout snack’.

It can feel like a lot of effort is required at this stage to enact the action; so, it’s just as well that motivation is (usually) high to counter the negative perception of effort!

Neural connections are developed, refined, and strengthened through repetition

In contrast to actions, behaviors are consistently repeated actions. If a person goes to the gym, as intended three times a week, and they’ve done this consistently for the past six weeks then we could say that they’ve built an exercise behavior. If such a behavior was continued for a period of six months, we could then say that an exercise habit (consistently repeated behavior) had been built.

‘Building’ is the correct term because at the neural level building is exactly what is happening.

With each repetition of the action, neural connections are being developed, refined, and strengthened as the neural pattern of ‘going to the gym’ gets programmed into the brain. As the program is refined, it becomes increasingly automatic and less dependent on input from the conscious brain. It feels ‘easier’ for the person involved as less thought and planning is required.