It’s well-documented that exercise is good for you. Study after study shows physical activity is the key to health and wellness. But if exercise isn’t part of your normal routine, it can be hard to stick with it. In fact, less than one-quarter of American adults get the recommended amount of exercise each week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fortunately, there’s a growing body of evidence that reveals the factors that will help you stay active in the long run.
In one study published last spring, researchers followed novice exercisers with new gym memberships for up to 12 months and asked them to fill out surveys about their experiences. The study identified three elements that led participants to stick with a regular exercise routine: choosing an enjoyable activity—something the participant looked forward to doing; a feeling of self-efficacy (i.e., the participants believed they could succeed); and social support from friends and family.
Social support comes up frequently in the literature on sustaining an exercise routine.A study published last year in the journal Physiology asked study subjects to participate in hand-grip tests with and without social support. People with social support performed better on the hand-grip test, and they rated its difficulty level as lower—even at the more challenging stages of the test.
What exactly does social support mean when it comes to exercise? A systematic review, published by Canadian researchers in the International Journal of Sports and Exercise Psychology, spells out exactly what kinds of social supports help people stick with exercise routines. They found that emotional support is an important component of beginning and maintaining exercise programs. Emotional support could be someone to complain to when you don’t feel like heading out on that run, or someone to motivate you when the going gets tough.
Practical support—such as a ride to the gym or a gift of exercise gear—did not help participants begin a new exercise routine, but it did help them maintain their physical activity levels.
If you have embarked on an exercise program before, you have likely encountered someone who worries that you’re “doing too much” or you may injure yourself. The review categorized these types of comments as negative social support and found that they do, in fact, lead people to exercise less. If there are naysayers in your life, it’s best to tune them out when it comes to physical activity.
Researchers found mixed results about the source of social support. For example, some studies found support from a significant other or peers greatly improved participants' chances of sticking with an exercise routine, while others found that type of support made little or no difference.
In fact, some studies found that encouragement from friends and family members made participants less likely to exercise in the future. While that may sound surprising, there is strong evidence that when people are pressured to be physically active by friends or significant others, they shy away from physical activity. The answer might lie in perception: When people think they are being coerced to do something, they are more likely to rebel against it; when they think someone is supporting their own plan, the support is more likely to have a positive effect.
The take-home message: There are important elements that can help you stick to an exercise routine. Choose an activity that you enjoy doing; cultivate a belief that you can achieve your goals; and find a social support system that encourages and helps you, but does not pressure or coerce you to exercise.