Even in the best of times, people experience inconsistent motivation levels to exercise, according to Missouri State University’s Dr. Sara Powell.
With the added unusual stressors of a pandemic, how does that change?
Powell, assistant professor in the kinesiology department, is working on a collaborative study with faculty and students to find out.
The Stress, Physical Activity, COVID-19 Exploratory Study gathered qualitative data from 466 adults nationwide. Respondents reported their levels of cardiovascular and muscular strength, flexibility and neuro-motor exercise prior to the pandemic.
Then, respondents described how this – and their stress level – had changed during the last year.
“For a lot of folks, what changed was their environment of exercise,” Powell said. There was a notable shift toward more outdoor or at-home exercise.
But she was more interested in the stress reported and the correlation to exercise.
“There were some interesting differences in stress levels between those who were continuing to exercise and those who weren’t exercising quite as much,” Powell said. “Physical activity is really important for helping you manage stress. People were losing motivation to maintain their physical activity habits.”
One of the major contributing factors was lack of facility access. But some of the factors survey respondents shared were not that different from typical barriers in more “normal” times: perceived lack of time, lack of motivation and lack of confidence.
“Motivation is just like any other muscle in your body,” she said. “A lot of the work I do is in this realm of psychological skills intervention.”
To make a change in physical activity, Powell suggests implementing visual cues, such as:
- Placing your workout clothes on your dresser before going to bed.
- Scheduling time on your calendar and setting notifications for workout time.
- Using self-monitoring or tracking devices to be conscious of your progress.
- Writing goals on paper (or a phone lock screen) and placing them where they’re visible throughout the day.
To increase accountability, Powell suggests a written contract outlining your goals, strategy and plan. She also encourages accountability partners to work out with – either in person or virtually – to help keep an eye on your goals.
Setting overly aggressive goals can contributes to a lack of confidence, Powell said.
“If a program is not set up incrementally, where you gradually increase the intensity and frequency, folks aren’t going to stick to it,” she said. “When I’m working with individuals who are trying to start being active, we begin with finding something they enjoy.”