Thinking about Benefits and Obstacles to Regular Exercise

Have you ever set your alarm to exercise in the morning but didn’t get out of bed, or planned to go to the gym in the evening but ended up going home instead? The key to following through on plans and intentions may be quite simple. Mental contrasting is a simple cognitive technique in which people specify a goal they are trying to reach, and then they identify and imagine the most positive outcome they expect from reaching their goal and the most relevant obstacle they are likely to face in trying to realize their goal. This simple technique was recently tested in a randomized controlled trial (RCT) and the results were published in Health Psychology.

Theoretically, mental contrasting works because the contrasting of benefits and obstacles makes an individual’s efforts to change their behavior more realistic and helps to maintain motivation when challenges inevitably occur. Mental contrasting has previously been shown to be effective in a number of different contexts. In this study, the researchers tested whether adding a mental contrasting task to making plans and setting goals for regular exercise would lead to more exercise over a four-week period. In addition, they tested the possibility that focusing the mental contrasting on the affective benefits and obstacles of exercise (e.g., it will result in more energy, it will be unpleasant while doing it) would be more effective than either focusing on instrumental benefits and obstacles (e.g., it will improve my health, it will require too much time) or a standard mental contrasting without any particular focus. This hypothesis is based in the growing evidence showing that affective factors, such as how people feel during and after exercise, are critical determinants of regular exercise.

Participants who were randomly assigned to do the mental contrasting with an affective-focus reported significantly more weekly minutes of physical activity at the end of four weeks than participants in the instrumental benefits-focused condition or the standard condition. On average, they reported nearly 300 more metabolic equivalent of task (MET) minutes than the other two groups, the equivalent of about 60 additional minutes per week of brisk walking.

The findings from this study are valuable for at least three reasons. First, this was a well-designed RCT. To test the effects of intervention techniques on behavior, the RCT is the gold standard design. Thus, we can have greater confidence that the affect-focused mental contrasting has a causal effect on exercise behavior. Second, the mental contrasting technique used here is simple and straightforward, and it could easily be used as standard practice to increase the likelihood that people follow through on their exercise plans. Third, the findings add to the growing body of evidence for the importance of affective factors in the decisions people make about exercise.

Reference. Ruissen, G.R., Rhodes, R.E., Crocker, P.R.E., & Beauchamp, M.R. (2018). Affective mental contrasting to enhance physical activity: A randomized controlled trial. Health Psychology, 37, 51-60.

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