How Important is Self-Control in Exercising Frequently?

Intuitively, it might seem like sticking to a regular exercise routine is nothing more than a battle of willpower. This would suggest that people who are somewhat lacking in the self-control department are doomed to forever be out of shape.

A recent study, however, suggests that while high levels of self-control help with keeping up an exercise routine, they’re probably not necessarily.

The study, from researchers at Ohio State University, looked at how two different factors influence people’s exercise behavior.

The first was what psychologists call effortful control. This trait essentially has to do with one’s self-control, or one’s ability to override immediate impulses.

The second factor the researchers were interested in was peoples’ implicit attitudes to exercise. This has to do with how people really feel about exercise deep down. That is, if I were to directly ask you whether you enjoy exercising, your explicit attitude might be to say “sure, I love exercising!” But your implicit attitude would be the subconscious associations exercise has for you, regardless of what consciously you tell others or tell yourself.

As you might expect, both these traits are related to how much people exercise. People with positive implicit attitudes to exercise – that is, people who basically have better subconscious associations with exercise – tend to exercise more. And people with high self-control also tend to exercise more.

But where things get interesting is when you consider how effortful control and implicit attitudes to exercise interact with each other.

What the researchers found is that when people score higher on effortful control, their implicit attitudes to exercise don’t matter. That is, for people with more self-control, it doesn’t make a difference whether they fundamentally enjoy exercising or not – they exercise the same amount either way.

For people with less self-control, though, implicit attitudes make a big difference. When people have lower effortful control, it appears that having positive implicit attitudes to exercise can compensate for having lower self-control. If you enjoy exercising, it may not matter if you lack self-control because you want to exercise!

When people have less self-control and more negative implicit attitudes toward exercise, though, that’s when exercise routines fall apart. If you aren’t good at forcing yourself to do things you don’t want to do and you don’t enjoy exercising, you’re in for a tougher time. So if you’re having a hard time keeping up your exercise routine, it may be because you’re lower on effortful control and you don’t actually enjoy your exercise routine that much in the first place.

The good news is that it appears you may be able to compensate for a lack of effortful control by creating an exercise routine you do like. Find a type of exercise you genuinely enjoy, and whether or not you’re good at motivating yourself to do things you don’t like becomes irrelevant.

Image: Flickr/Fit Approach