Psychologists Mathew J. Biondolillo and David B. Pillemer asked undergrads to complete a two-part online survey about their college activities. It included questions about workout frequency, intensity, and attitudes toward exercise (students knew the survey regarded their activity choices as a whole, but didn’t know the experiment's exercise-specific orientation). Participants ranked statements like “I exercise because other people say I should,” and “I value the benefits of exercise,” as well as pairs of adjectives (“useful” vs. “useless,” or “relaxing” vs. “stressful”) to describe their attitudes toward working out. Finally, the students were divided into three groups: one group was asked to describe a memory of a positive experience that had inspired them to exercise; the next to describe a negative, exercise-motivating experience; and the control group was not asked to recall a memory.
Finally, the students estimated how many times per week they’d like to exercise in the future (for 15-minute periods of moderate-to-strenuous activity). Eight days following the initial survey, students were asked to report how often they had exercised that week. Those in the "positive-memory group" reported the highest levels of exercise; 61% increased their reported exercise during the eight-day period. The students who had recalled negative memories showed a 49% increase in exercise, and the control group exhibited a 37% increase. No matter what the memory, it seems, just thinking about a time we’ve worked out in the past can trigger increased motivation.
Previous research agrees: Positive thoughts about exercise play a role in how likely we are to get up and get moving. Plus, there's proven merit (here and here) to autonomous forms of workout motivation (versus being dragged along by someone else’s dedication, for instance). But, before we go thinking that kick-ass run from the summer of 2004 will fuel us through every single workout from now until forever, let's keep in mind that this study has its limits. First off, the scope is super-small — it had only 186 participants, nearly 80% of whom were women. Plus, all of the students were from a single university, and 94% of them were Caucasian.
So, does recalling a personal best jack you up for future workouts? Or, do not-so-great workout experiences motivate you to try even harder? Let us know in the comment section below.
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