Looking to exercise more? Focus and plan out your actions
A new study examines how different types of planning could help increase physical exercise behaviour and overcome a lack of action.
Exercise has numerous health benefits — including improving blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar, bolstering sleep, attention, energy and mood, and more.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that individuals between the ages of 18–65 should engage in at least 150 min of moderate to intense physical activity during the week, or at least 75 min of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both. A WHO 2018 study showed that 1.4 billion adults are physically inactive and are at risk of developing or exacerbating problems such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and cancer — which may result in a costly strain on public health.
However, it’s not always easy to simply stop procrastinating and start exercising. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on people's daily lives; the early days of lockdown restrictions and work-from-home policies, as well as safe distancing measures even when exercising, have led to a dip in physical activity, and these pandemic habits may be hard to break.
“Physical inactivity is particularly prevalent in high-income Asia Pacific regions such as Singapore, with approximately one in three participants (i.e., 36.5%) with insufficient physical activity as compared to global figures of one in four (i.e., 27.5%). The prevalence was observed to have increased over the past two decades, while prevalence rates remained stable across other countries,” says Dr Denise Dillon, Associate Dean of Research Education at James Cook University (JCU) in Singapore.
She adds, “Despite a large proportion of Singaporeans agreeing or strongly agreeing that wellbeing benefits of engaging in physical exercise can be physical, mental, and emotional health, many fail to regularly engage in physical exercise, with major barriers to engaging in physical activity being lack of time or interest. Less frequently reported barriers such as lack of a sporting partner, nearby facilities or money for sports activities indicate at least some intention could be present. It appears that one pathway to increasing physical exercise levels in Singaporeans is to bridge the intention-behaviour gap.”
The intention-behaviour gap describes the failure to translate intentions into action. Dr Dillon, together with psychology Honours graduate Clement Wee, set out to examine how two types of planning could bridge the intention-behaviour gap and increase physical exercise behaviours. The two types of planning are:
- Action planning (a detailed plan that specifies one’s intentions in a ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ manner)
- Coping planning (the expectation of difficulties or barriers that might hold one back from carrying out their behavioural intentions, and a detailed plan of how one would overcome the difficulties and barriers)
By surveying and collecting data from 85 participants, the study showed that action planning resulted in a significant increase in physical exercise behaviours (thus the number of participants to meet WHO recommended guidelines for physical activity). This was particularly beneficial for inactive participants with strong intentions to exercise. On the other hand, coping planning did not help participants increase their time spent engaging in physical exercise. It is also worth noting that an individual’s intentions and past habits for physical exercise remained as strong predictors for any increase in exercise behaviour.
Ultimately, action planning is an effective strategy to allow for behavioural change. Dr Dillon elaborates, “Specifically, action planning could target participants who were not meeting recommended guidelines or those who would like to engage in new physical exercise behaviours and who have set strong intentions in the motivational stages.”
“Given that it is a cheap yet effective strategy to bridge the intention-behaviour gap, action planning could be widely implemented. This could help more individuals increase their physical exercise behaviours, develop good habits, and reap longer-term health benefits. Nationwide, this would lead to a more productive and healthier population, with lower economic costs on public health.”
Wee, Zhi Q.C., and Denise Dillon. 2022. "Increasing Physical Exercise through Action and Coping Planning" International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19, no. 7: 3883. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19073883
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