Experiential Avoidance: Measurement and Implications for Exercise

About half of American adults don’t meet recommended exercise guidelines and a quarter of American adults don’t exercise at all. Although the various benefits of exercise are well known, why do individuals avoid exercise altogether?

Our research group has begun examining experiential avoidance as one of the reasons why individuals avoid exercise. Experiential avoidance is the tendency to avoid thoughts, feelings, or sensations, even when this avoidance leads to negative outcomes. For example, the physical experiences associated with exercise, like increased heart rate and sweating, can be particularly uncomfortable for some individuals, and are thus experiences to be avoided. However, avoiding exercise also leads to unhealthy outcomes, such as difficulty maintaining a healthy weight, limited physical mobility, and increased disease risk. To understand any psychological phenomenon, it is critical to have an accurate measure of it.

One of the challenges in conducting experiential avoidance research is that measuring experiential avoidance has been difficult. Our research group has recently published a study in the journal Behavior Therapy highlighting the measurement issues associated with experiential avoidance measures. In this large-scale study, we used a series of statistical analyses and found consistent evidence that the two most popular self-report measures of experiential avoidance, the Action and Acceptance Questionnaire-II (AAQ-II) and the Multidimensional Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire (MEAQ), were measuring different things. The AAQ-II was unintentionally measuring the personality trait neuroticism—a proneness to experience negative thoughts and feelings— whereas the MEAQ was measuring it’s intended construct, experiential avoidance. Therefore, the MEAQ is an accurate measure of experiential avoidance.

After determining that the MEAQ is an accurate measure of experiential avoidance, we used it to study why individuals avoid exercise. Because the extent to which an individual enjoys exercise is a marker of how pleasant the experience is for them, we tested the idea that individuals who are high in experiential avoidance who also report low exercise enjoyment would be most likely to avoid exercise. Our results supported this idea. These findings suggest reducing individual’s experiential avoidance could be beneficial for increasing exercise rates.

Taken together, improved measurement of experiential avoidance has allowed our research group to better understand reasons why individuals do not engage in healthy behaviors. This will allow more effective interventions to be developed to target the specific characteristics of an individual to help that individual successfully change their behavior. Future directions include examining experiential avoidance in more health contexts with the goal of incorporating experiential avoidance reduction techniques into health behavior interventions.

Reference: Rochefort, C., Baldwin, A.S., & Chmielewski, M. (2017). Experiential avoidance: An examination of the construct validity of the AAQ-II and MEAQ. Behavior Therapy.

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