For best exercise, don’t be lonely or late

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Thinking about starting an exercise program to help lose weight? If you find some activity that allows you to regularly work out early in the day with the same group of people — and it’s something you like — then you’re well on your way.

Conversely, if you plan to exercise at the end of the day at home, alone, on some machine you bought from an infomercial, prepare to continue being fat.

Social context, self-control and positive reinforcement play critical roles in exercise adherence, and the data provide interesting insight that can be used to increase your likelihood of following through.


Let’s start with a look at “what” you choose to do.

Running burns more calories than cycling, but you may enjoy the latter yet hate the former. Operant conditioning theory states that if a stimulus, such as exercise, elicits a positive response, such as enjoyment or contentment, then people will seek to reproduce those feelings by engaging in the behavior again. The lesson: When picking an exercise, choose maximum enjoyment over maximum results, and the positive reinforcement will help you stick with it.

Moving on to “when,” things gets simpler: The later in the day you push your exercise session, the more likely you are to bail out and instead plow butt-first into a Doritos-covered couch.

Barbara Brehm is a professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and in her 2004 book, “Successful Fitness Motivation Strategies,” she outlined how self-control is a limited resource and that the stress we experience during the day gradually erodes our willpower to exercise. “People who exercise early in the morning have the highest adherence rates; they have not yet expended time and energy overcoming the barriers that inevitably develop during the day,” she states.

I can vouch for that. Back in the bad old days when I had a job and my boss was doing her Linda Blair impression and I was just waiting for her head to twist around, I was more interested in hitting the liquor store on the way home than the gym.

“Who” and “where” are also important aspects of exercise adherence.

“Human beings are wired to be in groups,” said Bert Carron, a professor of kinesiology focusing on sport psychology at the University of Western Ontario. “Exercising alone doesn’t work for the majority of people.”

The type of people you exercise with makes a difference. “Birds of a feather like to flock together,” Carron told me. “Geriatrics don’t want to exercise with a bunch of 20-year-olds, and vice versa. But all of them want to be in a group.”


Except for my dad. He just wants his dog.

Carron was co-author of a 2006 analysis on the effectiveness of interventions to promote physical activity; it looked at 44 studies, containing 4,578 participants, that lasted anywhere from less than three months to more than a year. In the analysis, which was published in the journal Sport & Exercise Psychology Review, Carron and colleagues examined the effect on adherence of a variety of exercise scenarios.

Because they were looking at numerous studies pooled together, they measured adherence with something called “effect size,” which I had absolutely no understanding of, so Carron had to spell out the bottom line in plain English. “Those who exercised alone at home had the lowest adherence rates by far,” he told me. “Comparatively, those in the ‘collective’ group had much higher adherence.” When I asked him how much higher the adherence rates were for collective groups, he said he measured “a substantial effect. It represents a very large difference.”

And the more Borg-like the group, the better, it appears. The study defined a collective group as “standard exercise classes in which participants engaged in physical activity in the presence of an instructor.” The authors compared that kind of group with what they called a “true group” — one “in which a team-building strategy was used in an attempt to increase the sense of cohesiveness among participants.” True groups had much higher adherence rates than the collective groups (which had significantly higher adherence than those who exercised alone at home).

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

I spoke with Colleen Parsons at the University of Calgary, who runs its marathon training program in a “true group” fashion, and she told me she’d had a 95% success rate with participants completing a marathon over the last 10 years. These are people who were barely runners at all, and she’s getting them to run for 26.2 miles (I’m assuming through creating some kind of hive mind).

Another interesting idea is that, given time, it’s possible for a collective group to mimic a true group — further increasing exercise adherence. Chelanne Murphy, who teaches Spinning and circuit training classes at World Health Club in Calgary, explained how this can happen. “It is consistently the same group of people coming to my classes,” she told me. “Some of the people have been in these classes for 10 years and developed close friendships as a result.”

Carron and I discussed how even if you go to the gym solo to work out, the experience would probably be akin to being in a collective group: You’re surrounded by fellow exercisers with similar purpose and you see a lot of the same people and even make friends there. So it would likely have similar adherence rates. Personally, I know that the idea of being around like-minded people pushes me to go to the gym, and once there, I know I’m going to stay the full hour and get it all done. Whereas I find working out at home lonely and distracting: With email, phone, TV, doorbell and fridge, I’ve got a lot of things pressuring me to quit after 10 minutes.


So the next time you see an infomercial selling stuff to Turbo-Fit your Cross-Jam or P90 your X-Ab-Flexor, all from the comfort of your living room, consider whether you’re really going to watch those DVDs or use that equipment.

I know my mother doesn’t. She’s got a pile of exercise DVDs sitting around that are still inside the cellophane.

And with that, I’m out of the will.

Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada.