What Determines Exercise [Adherence] Success and What Can You Do?

exercise adherence | Live Fit LeanSedentary lifestyles are a prevalent problem in modern America, detrimentally affecting the lives and health of many people. There are many reasons why people fail to maintain a regular exercise regime (also known as exercise adherence). Although the reasons can be named, preventing drop out and helping people maintain a regular active lifestyle is still a mystery. Forty-five percent of Americans do not exercise on a regular basis and 50% of those that begin a program will drop out within six months (Dishman, 1987).

Beginning a fitness program is often difficult, but maintaining an adequate level of physical activity as part of a life-long lifestyle seems to be the most challenging of all. For a number of reasons – time, money, interest, social support or laziness – many people fail to adhere to an exercise program permanently.

It is understood that humans need a certain level of exercise in their daily lives to maintain physical fitness. This can be achieved in a number of ways, from group and individual sports, to organized classes at a fitness center, to unorganized exercise at a gym, to personal training, to walks on the beach and even household chores. Aside from the innate drive to exercise, researchers have discovered that the motivation to do so falls in two general categories: intrinsic and extrinsic motives. Meaning, a person’s motivation to exercise comes from either internal reasons like challenge, enjoyment or satisfaction or external reasons such as body-related issues or social factors. There are a number of sub-factors which contribute to a person’s adherence or the lack thereof, to exercise. A few of which examples are: rewards, expectancy of outcome, and self-efficacy.

“Exercise adherence has been loosely defined in the research literature both as exercise behavior within a structured program and as exercise maintenance outside of a formal program” (Emery, 1992, p. 466), however, a time period at which short-term exercise becomes adherence was not discussed in any available research.

Subscribe to Newsletter

Intrinsic Motivation

According to Ryan (1997) intrinsic motivation is:

Satisfaction: “Behaviors performed for the satisfaction one gains from engaging in the activity itself. According to most theorists the primary satisfactions associated with intrinsically motivated actions are experiences of competence and interest/enjoyment” (p. 336).

Extrinsic Motivation

Rewards: Behaviors are those that are performed in order to obtain rewards or outcomes that are separate from the behavior itself…. Exercisers who have body-related motives as primarily extrinsically focused, since their goals concern outcomes extrinsic to the activity per se (p. 336).


Studies have shown that a person is more intrinsically motivated when they participate in an activity that is interesting and challenging to them. For example, adherence rates for martial arts classes are much higher than for aerobics classes. This is because people who take aerobics classes do so for body-related reasons (extrinsic motives) and most people who participate in martial arts classes do so for intrinsic reasons and feel more energized, confident and satisfied (Ryan, 1997).

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic

Body-related, extrinsic motivation is not usually enough to maintain a regular exercise program; a person will lose interest and find reasons why they can no longer exercise. Ryan’s (1997) study found that for a person to continue in an exercise program they would need to find enjoyment and/or growth of competencies in the physical activities (p. 350).

Women vs Men

Women, Ryan said, are more prone to exercising for body-related, extrinsic reasons then men because they are, in general, less satisfied with their bodies. Thus, men are more apt to exercise to build their competencies or for the enjoyment of the activity, equating a far better chance for exercise adherence (1997).


A 1988 study by Gillett had a remarkable 94% adherence rate in an aerobic dance program which lasted 16 ½ weeks. Many factors attributed to this finding: the group was homogenous (they were roughly the same weight, similar age, female and they were only exercising with people from their same group), they carpooled to the classes together (thereby committing them to the class), they enjoyed the social networks, they experienced pleasurable feelings associated with increased energy and fitness, the leader was a nurse (and allowed the participants to ask her health-related questions), the study was for a finite period of time, the participants were committed to an established goal, they had a strong desire to change their body image and to change their physical status for improved health.

Drop Out

Desharnais (1986) found that subjects who eventually dropped out of the study, did not have a high level of certainty from the beginning that they would succeed. They also expected greater benefits from the program than was realistic. This would indicate that the likelihood of adhering to a program could be determined at the onset by the person’s attitude and determination.


Sears (2001) had a similar finding when he examined expectancy of benefits and self-efficacy on exercise behavior. Many people have inflated expectations in regard to the results of exercise, a phenomenon called the “false-hope syndrome.” People are not likely to meet unrealistic expectation of exercise results and repeated attempts will often result in self-blame, guilt and frustration. The study found that the participants predicted that they would be more satisfied at a later point in the program, but in fact, they were not; they were actually less satisfied. The most likely reason for this is they did not revise their predictions, even given the experience of past failures.

Exercise Adherence is All About the Attitude

McCready (1985) found that participants who had a positive attitude toward exercising for stress and tension reduction had a higher adherence rate, but that the subjects who were most interested in the program for the social benefits may have dropped out because they were disappointed at the lack of opportunity for socializing during an aerobics class.


Rewards are an excellent way to improve exercise adherence (Kravitz, 1991). Suitable rewards should be given at first to increase extrinsic motivation and then tapered off, or decreased if/when intrinsic motivation takes over. Sometimes recognition is enough of a reward and incentive to continue. Rewards are especially useful in the beginning, because intrinsic motivators such as improved energy and strength will take some time to develop.


Throughout a lifespan a person may have any number of barriers “preventing” him or her from exercising regularly, some of the more common reasons found are health problems, social issues and poor exercise habits in adolescence. However, social reinforcement from family or friends can have a powerful impact; perhaps this is the most influential factor of exercise adherence.

Subscribe to Newsletter

Roles & Duties

McGannon (2002) stated that social cognitive theory can help explain behavior beliefs and theoretically help predict exercise behavior which will lead to improving adherence. For example, a working mother uses her role and duties as the reason for not having the time to exercise. However, if she were truly dedicated to her physical fitness she would find a way to make the time by soliciting support from friends, family or day care services. Dishman, (1987) found that a spouse’s attitude toward exercise is just as important as the participant’s own attitude relating to regular exercise.

Self Talk, Self Perception

Another factor in changing from a sedentary lifestyle to an active lifestyle is the conversations a person has with themselves and others. These conversations can have an extreme impact on a person’s attitudes, feelings and behaviors in regards to the role they may play as mother, father, employee, boss, et cetera and the need to be physically fit.

Goal Success Strategies

Dishman (1987) discussed various effective goal setting and reinforcement techniques such as self-monitoring, where the participant keeps a record of specific exercise achievements and stimulus control which involves using objects, ideas and other behaviors associated with exercise to influence exercise behavior.

Examples of stimulus control are: taking a route past a gym or park (a place to exercise) or carrying workout clothes at all times to remove excuses and allow exercise into the daily lifestyle. Dishman (1987) found these techniques to be 60% to 80% effective.


Dishman (1987) also found that holding a person accountable for their continued exercise can be successful. The adherence rates of participants who signed an agreement stating they would continue with the program for 6 month was 65%. The nonsigners were as low as 20%.


When it comes to exercise adherence, education is not usually a factor. In studies of knowledge, beliefs and attitudes about health and exercise Dishman (1987) found little relationship between actual adherence. Most people view exercise as physically beneficial and know how to exercise – yet adhering to exercise on a regular basis is still difficult.


Yin (2000) suggested that self-schemata might provide a drive to not only begin an exercise regime, but to maintain it as well. Markus (1977) described self-schemata as “. . . cognitive generalizations about the self, derived from past experience that organize and guide the processing of self-related information . . .” (p. 64). Self-schemata will eventually act to filter the input and output of behavioral information to the self and it may be used to predict future exercise behavior (Yin, 2002).

Why Do People Drop Out of An Exercise Program?

A common reason sited for dropping out of a program was lack of results. A person will often become disillusioned if they do not see or feel the results they expected. Extrinsic motivation is a fragile balance where one’s entire motivation may rest on the expectation of results (Ryan, 1997). This can be alleviated by helping the person set realistic goals for themselves.

Why Do People Stick With An Exercise Program?

Emery found nearly all subjects in the 1-year follow-up study had continued with physical activity because they said it kept them in good shape and good health and they felt more alert and energetic. These were the results they needed for their continued motivation. Their reward was their success and their expectations were realistic so they were attainable.

Expectations & Success

Desharnais’ (1986) study supported the belief that the likelihood of adhering to a program is determined by the individual at the onset and influenced by his or her expectations for self-efficacy and outcome. Desharnais’ suggestion to enhance adherence is to alter the participants’ expectations as soon as they are active in the program by decreasing the expectation for outcome and enhancing the self-efficacy expectation.

What’s It All About?

The obvious answer for long-term exercise adherence is that people should find a physical activity that they enjoy. Ryan (1997) further suggested that for continued adherence, regardless of one’s initial motive, intrinsic motivation is critical because if one feels energized, confident and satisfied in an activity, one is more likely to continue with it.

That is not to say that a person cannot adhere to an exercise program if he/she lacks intrinsic motivation, but the chance of exercise becoming a life-long lifestyle is limited. Intrinsic motivation may develop over time if the person is diligent and insists that exercise becomes a lifestyle, or the person may simply accept it as a necessary chore in life, such as brushing the teeth or working. If exercise becomes a loathsome chore it will likely go by the wayside; that is why it is important, for the sake of life-long health, to find an activity or a number of activities that are pleasurable.

Subscribe to Newsletter


Desharnais, R. (1986). Self-efficacy and outcome expectations as determinants of exercise adherence. Psychological Reports, 59(3), pp. 1155-1159.

Dishman, R. K. (1987). Exercise adherence and habitual physical activity. In W. Morgan (Ed.) & S. Goldston (Ed.). Exercise and Mental Health: The Series in Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine.(pp. 57 – 83). Washington D.C.: Hemisphere.

Emery, C. F. (1992). Exercise adherence or maintenance among older adults: 1-year follow-up study. Psychology & Aging, 7(3), pp. 466-470.

Gillett, P. A. (1988). Self-reported factors influencing exercise adherence in overweight women. Nursing Research, 37(1), pp. 25-29.

Kravitz, L. (1991). Influence of reward and social support on exercise adherence in aerobic dance classes. Psychological Reports, 69(2), pp. 423-426.

Markus, H. (1977). Self-schemata and processing information about the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 63-78.

McCready, M. L. (1985). Locus of control, attitudes toward physical activity and exercise adherence. Journal of Sport Psychology, 7(4), pp. 346-359.

McGannon, k. R., & Mauws, M. K. (2002). Exploring the exercise adherence problem: an integration of ethnomethodological and poststructuralist perspectices. Sociology of Sport Journal, 19(1), pp. 67-89.

Ryan, R., Fredrick, C., Lepes, D., Rubio, N., & Sheldon, K. (1997). Intrinsic motivation and exercise adherence. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 28(4), pp. 335-354.

Sears, S. R., & Stanton, A. L. (2001, September). Expectancy-value constructs and expectancy violation as predictors of exercise adherence in previously sedentary women. Health Psychology, 20(5), pp. 326-333.
self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 63-78.

Yin, Z. & Boyd, M. (2002). Behavioral and cognitive correlates of exercise self-schemata. Journal of Psychology, 134(3) pp. 269 – 283.


You May Also Like

exercise adherence | Live Fit Lean

(Visited 2,257 times, 1 visit today)
Stay up to Date
Get the latest News, Tips, Articles and Podcasts

You will be updated every week or two with information to help you Live Fit.

BTW, your email address is safe with me. I will not share it in any way with anybody.

Thank you for joining our newsletter.

You will receive a confirmation and then every week your two you will receive the Live Fit Newsletter with tips, tricks and useful information to help you Live Fit.

Add Comment