Sticking to Exercise Routines

Ever have the intention to exercise but then don’t actually go? We can often beat ourselves up about this, but have you ever considered why this might happen? And how you could get around it?

Self Control

The ability to keep to exercise routines requires self-control. Research suggests all acts of self-control (e.g. emotional regulation and persistence) are empowered by a single global metaphorical strength that has LIMITED capacity.

That means self-control strength can become temporarily depleted after undertaking an act of self-control, which can in turn impair performance in a subsequent act of self-control. This state of temporary self-control exhaustion is called ego depletion. In other words, when we practice self-control we are resisting temptations. The harder we have to work to supress one set of temptations, the less likely we are to succeed at supressing another set. Resisting one temptation leads your ego, the seat of your rational thoughts, to become depleted and therefore be unable to resist the next temptation to come your way.

AS AN EXAMPLE… if you have had a difficult day at work where you have pushed through tasks you wanted to give up on (an act of self-control), or had to manage your anxiety levels (also an act of self-control) in a high pressure situation e.g. you’ve had an important pitch – then your self-control strength can be depleted. This can then impact your level of self-control strength which you can give to a subsequent task… e.g. trying to exercise post work.

So, what can you do about it?

Top tips to prevent a loss of self-control strength:

1)      Compare self-control strength to a human muscle.

This muscle can become temporarily depleted after having exerted self-control strength. However, as with a muscle, this resource can be strengthened and by doing so its capacity can be increased. Research has shown exerting self-control strength regularly over two-week period led to better self-control performance in other self-control tasks in the long run. What’s more – research shows practicing self-control in one area of your life can translate into better self-control in other unrelated domains. Look for ways to practice self-control daily to increase this ‘muscle’s’ strength.  

2)      Replenish depleted self-control

In the above I described how you can improve self-control strength. However, there are also ways to replenish depleted self-control. Research has shown using relaxation techniques (e.g. meditation and mindfulness meditation) after completing a self-control task can replenish self-control strength. If you think back to the muscle analogy, relaxation techniques can lead to a quicker regeneration of an exhausted muscle – i.e. an exhausted self-control strength. Taking this into account, can you find ways to relax after tasks which have required self-control. For example, taking a break, going for a walk or using a meditation app like Headspace?

3)      Create if-then plans

So called ‘if-then’ plans have been found to be a powerful tool to prevent depletion of self-control strength. If-then plans – also known as implementation intentions – is when you create a specific intention and precisely state when you will execute this intention. For example, your intention for exercise could be: ‘when I am coming home from work, I will go to the gym’. This leads to an association between a specific situation and the behaviour that needs to be performed in the given situation. When the specific situation occurs (coming home from work) the planned behaviour (going to the gym) then gets automatically activated. This automatic behaviour does not require self-control strength meaning the behaviour should not suffer from temporary depletion of self-control strength.

4)      Just focus on today

Don't worry about what you have to do tomorrow if you have trouble exerting self-control today. Thinking about the future can lead to self-control strength being depleted even further. Just take one day at a time and just state your intention to exercise for today.

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