The Science of Starting

America appears to be on the verge of an epidemic of inactivity. More than 80% of Americans do not meet the minimum guidelines for physical activity (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). The fitness industry however is growing, with an expected increase of 23% in employment over the next decade (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) and significant increase in health club memberships and spending (International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association). In 2014, 54.1 million Americans belonged to at least one health club nationwide, although an estimated 67% of members did not utilize their memberships (Statisticsbrain, 2015). Although this could suggest that adherence is the bigger overall issue in the majority, starting is always the first step in an exercise intervention. Following an exercise program has been shown to be associated with numerous health benefits, from decreased mortality risk (Kikkinos, 2012) to increased quality of life (Warburton, Nicol, & Bredin, 2006). Considering the constant increase in health club membership over the past decade it may be assumed that Americans are aware of their own general inactivity; the dissonance lies in the discrepancy between the numbers of those who make the attempt, regardless of dropout rate, and those who are not active enough. Of course there are limitations, as the number of Americans who begin exercise but choose to not become members of health clubs cannot be accounted for, nor the attempts that still do not meet the minimum exercise guidelines.

An internet search in Google of “how to start exercising” reveals about 59.4 million results. One may infer that while the general desire to start an exercise program is widely present, there also seems to be no shortage of ideas and tips regarding said topic, and having no idea what to do is very rarely the problem for anyone with access to the internet. Exercise programs are initiated by many Americans at the beginning of each calendar year, commonly known as the “New Year’s Resolution.” Increasing exercise amount is one of the most common of New Years’ Resolutions (Norcross, Mrykalo, & Blagys, 2002. Schwarz, 1997). “The popularity of New Year’s resolutions suggests that people are more likely to tackle their goals immediately following salient temporal landmarks” (Dai, Milkman, & Riis, 2014). It has been suggested that people are more likely to think about their health on “fresh start” opportunities during temporal landmarks established by society such as a birthday, or the beginning of a calendar year/month/week (Ayers, Althouse, Johnson, & Cohen, 2014). This may arise from the theory that individuals think of their past, present, and future selves as different, interconnected yet separate entities (Parfit, 1984), and perhaps this psychological separation plays a part in motivating people to pursue their goals. It has been suggested that the discrepancy between individuals’ expectations and actual behaviors may be attributed to the theory of “multiple selves,” where the agenda of the “should” self is at odds with the “want” self’s (Bazerman, Trenbrunsel, & Wade-Benzoni, 1998). The “should” self is idealistic and deliberate, looking out for long-term interests and is preoccupied with what an individual should do. It may be likened to Sigmund Freud’s (1923) concept of the critical and moral Super-ego, rooted in cultural expectations, beliefs, and morality. The “want” self on the other hand is present-focused and refers to what people want to do in the present moment. It may be likened to concept of the completely selfish and impulsive Id, or what Thomas Hobbes (1651) refers to as the State of Nature in humans. There exist the subconscious qualities that humans may or may not want to acknowledge. Then there is the Ego which is rooted in reality and reason, wishing to seek a compromise between the two, as Aristotle preached virtue--the balance between two extreme states of being (vices). This “golden mean” may be the optimal state for a desired action to commence, making use of the “should” self’s progressing long-term orientation to formulate an appropriate plan of action and the “want” self’s instinctual survival-driven constant action, culminating in a more practical, proactive approach to addressing aspirational behavior.

The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.” (Bruce Lee)

Such being considered, the two necessary steps required to spur action would be to (1) allow the “should” self to plan the outcomes, also referred to as goal setting, in order to increase the likelihood of perceived success (Locke, & Latham, 1985); and to (2) allow the “want” self to pursue strategically determined wants that would subsequently lead to achievement of said goal. Much research has been made distinguishing the two stages of goal pursuit, motivation and volition (Heckhausen & Gollwitzer, 1987. Heckhausen & Kuhl, 1985), and later deliberative and implemental (Gollwitzer, 2012. Wyer & Xu, 2010).

Many trainers and coaches begin by asking a potential client or trainee what their goals are (John, 2013). This is intuitive in a Capitalist society where the service of personal training is provided in exchange for compensation--the “product” which the consumer is paying for must be determined, and established as both realistic for the amount of labor to be provided and valuable (Smith, 1776). This goal is long-term, and provides meaning and context for the subsequent short-term goals to be determined. It has been suggested that focusing on the “why” rather than the “how” show marked increase in preliminary action-taking towards long-term health (Duke, Nonnemaker, Davis, Watson, Farrelly, 2014), and that a high-level top-down perspective allows individuals to be more likely to evaluate actions based on the desirability of the eventual goal rather than the time and effort required to achieve it (Liu, 2011. Rogers & Bazerman, 2008). And as consistent with the assumption that most individuals attempting to begin exercising are rarely hindered by not knowing what to do, the proposed course of action would be to start the goal-setting process with the “why.”

After the “should” self has planned out idealistic long-term goals, the steps to its eventual achievement are broken down into successive relevant short-term goals that the “want” self would be likely to strive for. Outcome goals are distilled down to specific process goals that an individual has control over. The needs of the individual must constantly be assessed in order to determine the appropriate steps one must undertake, as some individual needs take precedence over others (Maslow, 1943) and must therefore be addressed first. First placing emphasis upon “showing up” and building the habit of exercising (Godin & Shephard, 1990), a successive approximation model is followed accordingly, building an affirmative pattern of success to promote self-efficacy, which has been found to be a strong predictor of future success (Lechner & De Vires 1995. Marcus, Shelby, & Niaura, 1992). In order for this to become meaningful to the individual the short-term goals must be attainable enough to avoid frustration and anxiety, yet challenging enough to avoid boredom and complacency (Csikszentmihalyi, 1998), erring on the side of “too easy” as individuals have been shown to prefer boring yet easy tasks over interesting yet difficult ones when a near-future assignment was considered (Liberman & Trope, 1998) and taking into account the possibility of decision fatigue, when individuals have been found to be more likely to make the affective rather than cognitive choice (Shiv & Fedorikhin, 1999). These short-term goals must be carefully formulated and evaluated to maximize the likelihood of success and of the individual actually performing them. Each proposed action to be involved in the process of achieving these goals is to be evaluated by the individual to perceive a better picture of the possible opportunity costs of adopting the behaviors associated with the goals, weighing the possible pros against cons in a Decisional Balance Scale (Velicer, DiClemente, Prochaska, & Brandenburg, 1985) which has been shown to be applicable to a variety of areas regarding behavior change (Marcus, Rakowski, & Rossi, 1992). This will allow the individual to better determine whether the potential payoff of adopting a new action is worth the opportunity cost, and for only the appropriate actions which are deemed worthy to be selected for implementation. Everyone has the same amount of time allocated every single day to be filled with whatever endeavor one chooses to undertake, including doing nothing. Each course of action taken means another not taken (Roberts, 2007). By utilizing a Decisional Balance Scale the individual would have a better picture of what one would be missing out on if one were to adopt the new action and if the trade is perceived beneficial. Implementation of these actions related to said goals shall be delegated to reactive, automatic processes by linking them to foreseeable future situations in order to increase the chances of implementation (Oettingen, Hönig, & Gollwitzer, 2000. Gollwitzer, 1999) and to reduce the possible cognitive resource depletion that may arise from having to make decisions that could otherwise have been avoided.

Once all the variables have been set, all that remains is to let the “want” self pursue what it wants to and has been set to pursue. If the plan of action has been set properly, the “want” self’s short-term and the “should” self’s long-term goals should eventually align, leading to action without the need to exercise much willpower. Such is the theory of starting.

The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the engagement; you ought not to be thinking of whether it ends in victory or in defeat. Let nature take its course, and your tools will strike at the right moment.” (Bruce Lee)


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