Although goals that individuals have for joining fitness centers are diverse, controlling excess weight is among the most prevalent. With the knowledge that exercise is the most important predictor of sustained weight loss, but adherence is problematic, I oversaw an applied research program from 1994 to 2007 that aimed to first better understand exerciser dropout, then substantially reduce it. After all, without increasing probabilities for sustained exercise, weight loss was doomed to fail beyond the very short term, as has been the case for decades. Although pseudo-science would disagree, losing and sustaining enough weight to impact one’s health risks has been extremely rare, with little sign of improving using typical methods.
A process for maintaining exercise
After publishing hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies, four books, and articles tailored to exercise and health professionals, several key findings emerged as consistently being associated with reducing dropout from the expected rate of 50-60% over the initial 3-6 months. They were the basis of a program supporting regular exercise. Some essentials are as follows:
- A process for short-term goal setting is essential to counter disappointment from slow progress.
- Embedding an array of self-regulatory skills such as reframing negative thoughts (i.e., cognitive restructuring), preparing to address setbacks (i.e., relapse prevention), and gaining control of positive and negative behavioral prompts (i.e., stimulus control) is crucial for countering lifestyle barriers.
- Reinforcing even minimal gains builds feelings of competence (self-efficacy), especially when a participant views how well their newly learned self-regulatory skills overcame persistent barriers.
- Tailoring exercise regimens to bring about post-exercise feelings of energy and vigor served to “reinforce” the behavior. Objectively tracking progress in moods such as anxiety and fatigue over weeks and months also induces feelings of psychological wellness and persistence.
- Facilitating social support is imperative, but it needs to be carefully tailored to participants’ levels of competence. A deconditioned participant placed into a too-advanced group causes feelings of threat (sometimes termed “social physique anxiety”).