The nascent field of exercise psychology tries to understand why some people keep exercising and others stop.
When we think about the psychology of running, we tend to think about sports psychology: visualisation, self-talk, and other techniques designed to enhance performance.
But there’s growing interest in a related sub-discipline called exercise psychology, which deals with a different set of questions – like, for example, how a run makes you feel, and how that influences the probability that you’ll stick to your running routine. There were several sessions on exercise psychology at the American College of Sports Medicine conference in Denver in June. Here are a couple of highlights.
Run By Feel?
Walter Bixby and Kristen Fontela of Elon University looked at the difference between picking your own pace and having a pace dictated to you.
They invited volunteers to the lab to do two exercise sessions on a recumbent bike. In the first, the participants were allowed to pedal at whatever intensity they chose; in the second, the intensity was set by the experimenters. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the intensities were chosen to be identical in both sessions for each participant.
During the sessions, the subjects were asked to report various psychological measures such as their perceived exertion, their enjoyment (using a validated tool call the Physical Activity Enjoyment Scale), and how they felt (using, appropriately enough, the Feeling Scale).
Sure enough, even though reported exertion was the same in both cases, the subjects reported feeling better and having greater enjoyment during the self-paced trial. This finding, the researchers suggest, might indicate that self-selecting exercise intensity might raise the odds that people stick with their exercise programs.
One thing that struck me in reading this abstract was the contrast with all the recent discussion about Eliud Kipchoge’s 2:00:25 marathon, where having the pace set by a car and a half-dozen pacemakers was thought to offer significant mental advantages (beyond the benefits of reduced air resistance).
But does the loss of autonomy also have downsides? If the pace is predetermined, it limits your ability to respond to how your body is feeling in the moment – to back off a bit during a bad patch, then reaccelerate when you feel better and so on.
Of course, whether Kipchoge “enjoyed” his marathon is irrelevant for his particular goals. It’s entirely possible that being paced might make it easier, on balance, to sustain a difficult pace while also making it less enjoyable.
For that reason, I can see a role for a predetermined pace plan in racing and in certain hard workouts. But for easy runs? I’ve always been surprised when I talk to (or run with) people who are aiming to hit certain paces on their recovery runs. For me, the pace of those runs is dictated almost entirely by how fast I feel like running. I’ll glance at my watch periodically, but mostly from curiosity, to find out what pace today’s feeling corresponds to.
Last year, I wrote about an intriguing study by Iowa State exercise psychologist Panteleimon Ekkekakis, his former student Zachary Zenko, and Duke behavioral economist Dan Ariely.
The premise, borrowing from the behavioural economics literature, was that sticking to your exercise plan depends not only on how your workout makes you feel, but also on how you remember it making you feel. Since your feelings during the final part of an experience dominate your memories of that experience, the researchers suggested that starting fast and slowing down might produce more pleasant memories of a workout than the other way around.
In the original study, the researchers assigned people to do either progressively accelerating or decelerating cycling workouts, and confirmed that people did indeed form more pleasant memories of the latter.
At the ACSM conference, Zenko and Ekkekakis presented some in-the-wild data. They brought 93 volunteers into the lab and asked them to exercise for 10 minutes at an intensity corresponding to their ventilatory threshold, which is roughly the point at which exercise goes from pleasant to unpleasant for most people. Every two minutes, they used the Feeling Scale to assess how the subjects were feeling.
There was a wide variety in how affective (pleasure vs. displeasure) responses evolved during the workout. In 62 percent of subjects, they felt progressively worse during the workout; in 24 per cent of subjects, they felt progressively better.
Do such differences explain why some people are more likely to stick with exercise routines than others? Comparing the data to what subjects reported about their typical physical activity patterns, the researcher found that those whose enjoyment increased during the standardised workout tended to get more moderate exercise. There was no apparent link to amounts of vigorous exericse.
There are lots of questions here. It’s not clear to me, for example, why differences in response right at the ventilatory threshold should wield a big influence on overall activity patterns. If some people find exercise progressively more (or less) satisfying well below the ventilatory threshold, then it would be more obvious to me how that influences behavior.
The important thing, though, is that people are asking these questions. Because as Ekkekakis told me when I interviewed him last year, 97 per cent of people say they understand that exercise is important for health, but as few as three per cent of people actually meet standard exercise goals. To get more people exercising, we have to understand what’s currently holding them back.