Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How to get to the gym when you would rather sit on the couch.

For months now a good friend has been trying to convince me to run a half marathon with him. Each time the conversation comes up I casually change the subject, check my phone for new messages, or look him in the face and say “heck no.”  Why am I resistant to such a healthful, fun, and challenging event?

I have two reasons. First, I am by no means in shape. I get winded after five minutes at a light jog. The thought that my sorry body could take me 13 miles is unfathomable and probably unrealistic (at least at the moment). Second, and perhaps more importantly, I have no willpower when it comes to exercise. No matter how many times I begin a regular routine of pilates, or yoga, or tennis, within a few weeks I have fallen off the wagon. While I think a half marathon is a little much given my current fitness level, I have promised this friend that I will start going on regular runs with him as he trains for the event. This time, however, I am making the goal to stick with it. But the question is…HOW?

To get started, I can form a goal intention, which is simply labeling my goal, or putting it into words. In this case my goal intention is “I want to run regularly each week.” Every day I can remind myself of my goal intention with the hopes that those reminders will be enough to get me to the track. Will my goal intention help me? Will it overcome that issue I have with willpower and exercise? Unfortunately I don’t think so. Each day I can easily put off my goal and claim I'll do my running the next day, or the day after that.
Instead, I am going to use an implementation intention to achieve my goal of regular running. Implementation intentions are a strategy psychologists have developed for goal pursuit (e.g. Gollwitzer, 1993). They have been shown to deliver results! Implementation intentions specify the where, when, and in what way a person should implement their goal. They do this by linking a very specific cue or situation to a very specific response. For example, my implementation intention is “When the clock hits five on Mondays and Thursdays, I will change into my exercise gear and go for my run.”

How does the implementation intention work?

First I must rehearse it a few times. This rehearsal establishes a connection between the situational cues (five o’clock on Mondays and Thursdays) and a goal-directed behavior (changing into my exercise clothes and starting my run). Once the implementation intention has been sufficiently rehearsed, when the situational cues are encountered, the corresponding goal-directed behaviors are initiated automatically, or without effort. That is, when the clock strives five on a Monday, I will automatically change my clothes and start my run even if I’m drained.

Compare this implementation intention to the goal intention I started with: “I want to start running regularly each week.” Although my goal intention reminds me of what I aim to do at a global level it provides little to no help in how I should actually go about achieving that goal.

I trust that forming an implementation intention will help me to start running regularly. Why? There has been a ton of research establishing the efficacy of implementation intentions in goal pursuits of various kinds. In fact they are about three times more effective than simply creating a goal intention (Gollwitzer & Brandstatter, 1997). Much of this work has been conducted by Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, a professor at NYU (my alma mater).  Let me tell you about a few studies….

Action Initiation
Women were found to increase the frequency of regular breast self-examinations after forming an implementation intention that specified where they would perform the examination and at what time of day (Orbell, Hodgkins, & Sheeran, 1997). In fact 100% of the woman for whom this was a strong goal performed the examinations after forming an implementation intention, while only 53%  of woman for whom this was a strong goal completed the examinations without forming an implementation intention. In another study students were found to increase the frequency of vigorous regular exercise after forming an implementation intention specifying where and when they would exercise (Milne, Orbell, & Sheeran, 2002). In fact implementation intentions were much more effective in getting participants to exercise than reading a factual leaflet about the importance of exercise for health.

Stopping Unwanted Responses
In one study researchers evaluated how to stop unhealthy snacking. Participants in the implementation intention condition rehearsed the statement “When I encounter an obstacle to healthy eating and feel like having a snack, I’ll eat an apple instead.” These participants showed a marked reduction in unhealthy snack intake (Adriaanse, Oettingen, Gollwitzer, Hennes, De Ridder, & De Wit, 2010).

Emotion Regulation
In a series of studies, participants' emotions were measured while viewing fear eliciting stimuli (spiders) (Gallo, Keil, McCulloch, Rockstroh, & Gollwitzer, 2009). Some participants were arachnophobic and some were not. In the goal intentions condition participants were directed to form the goal “I will not get frightened.” Participants in the implementation intention condition formed the same goal intention but were additionally directed to form the implementation intention, “And if I see a spider, I will stay calm and relaxed.” Arachnophobic participants who formed an implementation intention rated the stimuli as less arousing, and experienced reduced negative affect. In fact, their negative affect was the same as non-arachnophobic participants.

Based on this research I’m using an implementation intention to start my running routine. Perhaps it will work so well that I’ll surprise my friend (and myself) by running a half marathon after all. Wish me luck!

Tell us about the goals you want to achieve and the implementation intentions you are going to use! 

One relevant article:
Gollwitzer, P., & Brandst├Ątter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73 (1), 186-199 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.73.1.186


  1. Interesting! If I'm experiencing a particularly horrible run (it's hot, I don't wanna, etc.), I push all negative-ish feelings away and replace them with a constant stream of egomaniacal thoughts. I'll think, "I have such a great butt," or "That cat in the window wants to be my best friend," or "If I deejayed a party, we'd probably need a doorperson because everyone would want to come." And so on. It's ridiculous, but it really works when I want to quit every second.

  2. Hi Amber-
    That sounds like an awesome strategy, and might just boost your self-esteem in the process. Let us know if you try an implementation intention in addition to your "constant stream of egomaniacal thoughts." Perhaps they can serve as a useful backup! Keep on reading!

  3. Well thats pretty nice.

    Ive been searching for somthing like this. I have my goals etc. but no real measure when i want to reach them and im actually working out only like once or two times a week. This will help me alot working out on regular basis.

  4. Marcel-
    Glad this is helpful. Keep us posted on your progress!