For many people, the calendar flipping to January 1 brings with it fresh plans to better one’s life over the next 12 months — with exercise being the most common new year’s resolution.
However, research has shown most people abandon their exercise plans within a month — so what factors play a part in whether we will stick to our new workout routines or slip back into our old ways?
A new Edith Cowan University (ECU) study has shown it may all boil down to your reasons for wanting to exercise.
Nearly 300 Australians were surveyed over two months at the start of 2022 and answered questions regarding their exercise goal resolutions, different types of motivation, mental wellbeing and more.
Lead researcher Professor Joanne Dickson said it was surprising what did and did not influence people sticking with their new year’s exercise resolutions.
“We predicted people who are flexible and tenacious in trying to achieve their goals would be more likely to maintain their exercise routines,” Professor Dickson said.
“However, neither of these goal motivational processes predicted exercise resolution ‘stickability’ across time, even though they did maintain mental wellbeing.
“Notably though, our research found — for the first time — distinct underlying motives that were favourable and unfavourable when it came to sticking with your New Year exercise resolutions.”
Do it for you
Professor Dickson said intrinsic motives (but not extrinsic motives) predicted sustained exercise adherence and promoted mental health.
“We found that engaging in exercise for autonomous and intrinsic reasons such as fun, enjoyment, reward, purpose, or meaning, are beneficial to maintaining one’s mental wellbeing and also beneficial in sustaining exercise adherence” Professor Dickson said.
“Theoretically, pursuing intrinsically motivated goal resolutions is thought to fulfil fundamental psychological needs, such as a sense of competence, fulfilment, worth, and enjoyment, which in turn promotes mental health — but notably we found it also helps to sustain exercise adherence.”
In contrast, the research team found pursuing New Year exercise resolutions for extrinsic reasons did not sustain exercise adherence over time and was detrimental to one’s mental health.
“Extrinsic resolutions are motivated by factors such as meeting the demands or approval of others, material rewards or pursuing a resolution because of a sense of guilt or shame if you did not,” Professor Dickson said.
Tenacious, flexible… but failing?
While the study found that goal adjustment (flexibility and persistence) predicted mental wellbeing, goal adjustment capacities appeared to play no role in adhering to exercise.
Professor Dickson said it’s not clear why goal flexibility and tenacity don’t play a positive role in sticking with a new workout regimen.
“One possible explanation might be individuals who adopt a flexible approach may readily prioritize other pursuits they perceive as more important, pressing or relevant ahead of their exercise goals,” she said.
“On the other hand, tenacious goal pursuit may make it difficult to modify or effectively alter a resolution even when the person is failing to progress or making poor progress.”
Professor Dickson said the time of year could also play a big part.
“People may be overly optimistic and unrealistic when setting New Year resolutions, particularly during the festive holiday season when there could be fewer competing demands and more available time.”
However, Professor Dickson stressed goal flexibility and persistence are beneficial abilities to have, as they serve to maintain one’s mental health.
“Taken together, adaptive goal pursuit is apt to lead to increases in enjoyment, meaning, engagement and enhanced wellbeing, even if the resolution is not successfully sustained or achieved,” she said.
“Therefore, encouraging people to focus on adaptive goal processes, rather than outcomes, is arguably a key factor in maintaining mental wellbeing.”
‘Adaptive goal processes and underlying motives that sustain mental wellbeing and New Year exercise resolutions’ was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
ECU authors on this study were Professor Joanne Dickson, Amelia Hart, and Dr Caitlin Fox-Harding.
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International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Method of Research
Subject of Research
Adaptive goal processes and underlying motives that sustain mental wellbeing and New Year exercise resolutions
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The authors declare no conflict of interest.