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Psychology, Sport

(Not so) Mini post: Do you exercise to get positive outcomes or avoid negative ones?

Admittedly, this topic is big, multifaceted, and developing, so today’s post isn’t going to look at the entire field. I’m focusing on one paper by Hannan, Moffitt, Neumann, and Kemps (2018). I was inspired to investigate this because I kept coming up with reasons that I didn’t need to go do the run I planned over my lunch break yesterday. In order to combat these seemingly rational arguments I put on my running shoes in advance. It had the desired effect, once the shoes were on there was no doubt in my mind that I was going for a run; after all, it would have been significantly worse on me mentally to take off the running shoes without having used them.

A pair of running shoes
Does having runners in my office make me more likely to run?

Approach-Avoidance is a way to classify motivation based on what is doing the motivating. Are you motivated by the ability to approach some goal (e.g., study to get a high mark, strength train to be able to do pull ups) or are you motivated to do something so that you can avoid a negative outcome (e.g., study so that you don’t fail, run on a treadmill to reduce high blood pressure)? My example of putting my running shoes on is an avoidance motivation: I had to go for my run because taking the shoes off without running would have been mentally stressful for me.

My personal experience is that both approach and avoidance motivation play a role in almost everything I do, but particularly in exercise. I enjoy the feeling after a good workout, I want to achieve positive results, but I also want to avoid gaining weight that might make it hard on my knee I injured decades ago. I also know that working out often helps reduce the daily pain I experience from some of my injuries and I want to avoid being in excessive pain and taking medications to deal with it. To me, these all seem like explicit decisions that I am making rationally. But Hannan et al’s research indicates that my implicit attitudes towards exercise (ie, whether exercise has a positive or negative association for me) might have more impact than I thought. If this is the case, putting my running shoes on yesterday was still key in motivating my workout, but that may be more of a result of the unconscious knowledge that I would enjoy the workout if I went and did it.

So, what does all this mean? Environmental cues can trigger our memories unconsciously. If those memories about exercise make me want to exercise in order to approach some positive goal like having fun or feeling good, then I am more likely to respond by going to exercise. And approach motivations are associated with more frequent exercise and higher intensity. However, the authors indicate that this might be hindered by my attentional bias. If I have positive implicit attitudes toward exercise than I may also have an attentional bias toward exercise-related stimuli – basically, if I like exercising I’ll notice my running shoes or the treadmills out my window; whereas, if I have negative implicit attitudes toward exercise I might not notice the exercise cues in my environment, I might instead notice sedentary clues (which obviously I don’t because I’m not sure what a sedentary clue is). In the end, this means that different people may have different unconscious levels of awareness and motivation for exercise. So, it’s not necessarily that someone is actively choosing to exercise or not to exercise, but that they respond to environmental cues differently. For me, working out is a logical reaction to the cues that I recognize in my environment, whereas to someone else, the idea of working out might not even occur to them unless they actively think about it. Obviously, this is an area that needs continued research and I look forward to following its development.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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