A man stepping inside an empty gym room.

Getting Back in the Gym: A Behavioral Science Perspective

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Jun 28, 2024

Joe has a bit of anxiety about working out. Once a decorated student-athlete, he has been sedentary for the past few years and feels uncertain about what to do next. 

His first hurdle is comparison — the perennial thief of joy. Joe knows that his abilities aren’t what they used to be. He also realizes that using his past performance as a baseline is unmotivating. 

With all these thoughts clouding his head, how can Joe get the inspiration to start back up at the gym?

In the quest for fitness, it is essential for all of us to recognize that the journey is as much about mental resilience and behavioral adaptation as it is about physical exertion. Cognitive biases and heuristics are all critical components that can either propel an individual forward or hinder their progress. 

By creating environments that encourage incremental progress, leveraging social support systems, and managing expectations realistically, we can build sustainable and fulfilling fitness habits. This holistic perspective not only enhances personal well-being but also contributes to a healthier, more productive organizational culture.

Expectations vs Reality

The media landscape we live in frequently broadcasts that effective exercise is a question of going big or going home. Given the binary choice, Joe has opted to stay home. Descriptive norms1—expectations about the behaviors of others—introduce a level of friction to beginners if they are concerned about or anticipate “violating” those norms. 

Many of us don’t feel prepared enough to simply show up at a gym and grind like a Navy SEAL—and feel that we will be socially penalized for this lack of intensity. However, the most successful exercisers tend to focus on consistency before intensity. Reordering our priorities at the gym can help us break inertia and reach escape velocity. Especially since many fitness spaces are, in reality, welcoming and accessible.

Behavioral Science, Democratized

We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

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Motivation: Friend or Foe?

Focusing our attention on consistency can help us create new exercise habits. However, maintaining them is another story. Management of motivation is vital during the adoption of new behaviors. Here, we have to identify the relationship between motivation and ability2

Aim too low and a sense of success or growth may be elusive. Aim too high and we risk exceeding current motivation levels—and what starts positively can quickly generate counterwill. This happens when motivational demand exceeds supply. Here, we fail to respond to prompts to action and positive identity shifts fail to stick.

The cardinal mistake is to build a system that depends on continuously high levels of motivation. Instead, we can find where exercise physiology dovetails with behavioral science to create more lasting habits3

Markers of performance will be lowest on the first day back after a long hiatus. This describes both a risk and an opportunity

Anyone trying to make up for lost time may run into a motivational brick wall via the side effects of doing too much too soon. However, the corollary here is that the more deconditioned you are, the easier it is to move forward. Imagine fitness as water poured into a cone. The lower the existing level, the more quickly, things rise. 

As an example, let’s look at V02 max (how much oxygen you can use during exercise) and its impact on your risk of dying prematurely. While going from a high to elite VO2 max is time and resource-intensive, going from a low to average VO2 max is accessible for most people—and will cut their risk of all-cause mortality over the next decade by half!4

By this same principle, a beginning exerciser can perform a “dress rehearsal” where they do a technically oriented, low-intensity routine as an initial workout. This is typically enough to create a training effect—and inoculate them against the muscle soreness of more intense workouts. The chances of success here are significantly increased, as is the ability to manage the intensity of future workouts. After all, a juggernaut is never quick out of the gate.

Game on

To manage early potential hurdles, we can leverage gamification principles. Often, the key to successful early behavior adoption is eliminating the delay between action and reward—speeding up the effects of positive reinforcement. 

This often requires management of exerciser expectations—shrinking an early workout into something that appears to be small and easily surmountable. Coaches are thought of as motivators who create better performance through higher expectations. But, expert insight will identify when smaller steps, or even regressions, will be more effective in helping clients build a flywheel for their own intrinsic motivation5

A good coach will often work to move the goalposts closer. This scaffolded approach creates a more successful experience—and a more powerful engagement loop6. In Joe’s case, he initially proposes a 5K run. However, his ideas change when his coach asks what distance would guarantee repeatability within the next day or two. He lands on a much more conservative 2K distance at a forgiving pace. Joe finishes his first workout feeling like he could have done much more—just as planned. 

We can describe this state as a motivational surplus—an experience that is now stretched out over his 24-48 hour recovery period. The waiting, they say, is the hardest part. 

That anticipation is leveraged in the same way as freemium game developers build addictive behaviors—except that it twists the dark arts for good; namely toward helping Joe achieve his health aspirations and enter into his next workout better prepared physically and with growing motivation.

The Psychology/Physiology Venn Diagram

Once we have a platform to build from, we can increase momentum. The value of early success can’t be overstated. So, while the initial constraints on intensity and volume fit best practices in behavior science, they also sync up with the physiology behind athletic preparation. 

Referred to as the acute-to-chronic workload ratio7, an exerciser takes the volume of training they’ve performed in the short term—typically one week—and applies it to the rolling average of a longer period.

A modest weekly increase (up to 1.3x) in training load is considered best practice. This corrects for two common tendencies in new exercisers: 

  • High levels of initial enthusiasm 
  • A tendency to try to make up for lost time. 

Avoiding acute spikes in volume minimizes the risk of training load errors — where the potential for disruption via injury jumps up substantially.

Joe’s coach knows how to leverage this new motivational surge. Rather than invest it in a particularly hard workout, she advises him to find a one-time behavior that will shift his future trajectory. 

A survey of his lifestyle and unique abilities reveals some insights. Together, they decide that the best play is to make regular appointments—something Joe is good at keeping. Here, he finds a personal training solution that provides the right combination of factors to increase his consistency dramatically. 

It’s a masala that plays to his sense of loss aversion (via an up-front investment); accountability (scheduled appointments) and a desire for growing competence (via a scaffolded learning approach); personal values (injunctive norms); and, on many days, reinforcement from legitimate enjoyment

Joe’s emotional experience continues to be prioritized as his skills develop. His growing skills and autonomy will be leveraged into future options—and an increasing ability to course-correct after disruptions. 

From a business lens, well-being cannot be mandated, only supported, any effective wellness program requires a nuanced approach. This approach should align with behavior design expert BJ Fogg’s maxim of “helping people do what they already want to do.”8 Here, they contribute to an individual’s need for autonomy, relatedness, and competence—all expressed through the lens of health. 

While many CFOs will want to immediately quantify the benefit of this kind of support to productivity, perhaps it’s best viewed through both the financial and experiential costs of attrition. 

Organizations with highly effective wellness programs lose fewer employees to attrition—with a study by Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health showing a 6% difference—a cost that can easily jump into seven figures for a medium-sized organization.9

Closing thoughts

When I began working in the health and fitness space two decades ago, I assumed that the process would be more mechanical — just a question of matching an exercise stimulus to a targeted adaptation. However, I quickly learned that there is a complex interplay of emotions, motivations, and abilities required for success. This is the bottleneck for most people, not effort or technique. 

Our innate drive toward health and thriving is often mismanaged by doing too much too soon or by attempting to meet some kind of external standard. Demotivators like pain, uncertainty, negative comparison, and transactional thinking can also halt progress in its tracks. 

I take a safety-first approach when it comes to both physical and psychological experience. I describe this as making it easy for yourself to do hard things. You can do this by starting slowly; getting support where needed; focusing on the process as it relates to your values; finding a community that shares the same health values, and through an experimental mindset. The aspiration here isn’t to find the world’s most efficient process. Instead, it’s to find a practice that you enjoy for its own sake. 

References

  1. Unicef (2021, November). https://www.unicef.org/media/111061/file/Social-norms-definitions-2021.pdf 
  2. Fogg, B. (2023a, December 5). Behavior model. behaviormodel. https://behaviormodel.org/ 
  3. Abrahams, M. (2023, April 18). Building habits: The key to lasting behavior change. Stanford Graduate School of Business. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/building-habits-key-lasting-behavior-change 
  4. Mandsager, K., Harb, S., Cremer, P., Phelan, D., Nissen, S. E., & Jaber, W. (2018). Association of cardiorespiratory fitness with long-term mortality among adults undergoing exercise treadmill testing. JAMA Network Open, 1(6). https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.3605 
  5.  Slemp, G. R., Field, J. G., Ryan, R. M., Forner, V. W., Van den Broeck, A., & Lewis, K. J. (n.d.). Interpersonal Supports for Basic Psychological Needs and Their Relations With Motivation, Well-Being, and Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Self Determination Theory. https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/2024_SlempFieldRyanEtAl_Interpersonal.pdf 
  6. Yang, R. (2023, February 18). You’re doing gamification wrong: Dual Loops explained. Medium. https://uxdesign.cc/youre-doing-gamification-wrong-dual-loops-explained-38a762c56ef4 
  7. Hulin, B. T., Gabbett, T. J., Lawson, D. W., Caputi, P., & Sampson, J. A. (2015). The acute: chronic workload ratio predicts injury: High chronic workload may decrease injury risk in elite rugby league players. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(4), 231–236. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2015-094817 
  8.  Fogg, B. (2023a, April 18). Building habits: The key to lasting behavior change. Stanford Graduate School of Business. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/building-habits-key-lasting-behavior-change 
  9. Berry, L. L., Mirabito, A. M., & Baun, W. B. (2014, August 1). What’s the hard return on employee wellness programs? Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2010/12/whats-the-hard-return-on-employee-wellness-programs

About the Author

Geoff Girvitz

Geoff has worked in the field of health and behavior change since 2005 and founded Bang Personal Training and Dad Strength as community-centred health solutions. He has worked with BJ Fogg, Thrive Global, The Behavior Design Collective, and Precision Nutrition—and has been featured in GQ, Vice, and The Globe and Mail. Geoff is trained in Fogg Behaviour Design and combines his in-the-trenches understanding with systems-level thinking to contribute to health and human thriving.

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