How to Develop a Healthy Exercise Identity

How to Develop a Healthy Exercise Identity

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  • Category Experts, Mental Health

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Are you an “exercise person?” Your answer to this question is at the center of whether or not you hold an exercise identity. However, what does this mean for your life and is this always a good thing? This article will address the pros and cons of possessing an exercise identity. 

What is Exercise Identity?
Identity is a highly personal and multi-dimensional component of how an individual views themself. Contributing to one’s identity are the groups and communities you are a part of and the roles you take on within those. 

Exercise identity, specifically, is the extent to which individuals believe that exercise is an important component of who they are as a person. People who are more likely to develop an exercise identity are those who view exercise as important, believe they are capable of engaging in exercise, enjoy exercise, and those who are motivated to exercise. All of these factors lead to specific beliefs about exercise which can then serve as a standard for what behaviors one has to engage in to maintain that identity (Rhodes et al., 2016). For example, one study indicated that people believe an exercise identity is maintained by the prioritizing of exercise, exercising for a purpose, exercising consistently, and exercising with a particular frequency, duration, and intensity (Strachan et al., 2015). 

What does an exercise identity mean for us, practically? Let’s find out!

Exercise Identity and Exercise
People who have greater exercise identity exercise more frequently and tend to make greater plans or goals for their exercise than people low in exercise identity (Strachan et al 2015). Additionally, the stronger of an exercise identity that someone holds, the more likely they are to perceive that they have behaved in ways consistent with their identity (Strachan et al., 2009). At the same time, the act of exercising and past experiences with exercise are what help to build an exercise identity (Rhodes et al., 2016). This reciprocal relationship means that you can start your exercise journey with whichever side is easier for you - begin either with exercise or with developing your identity.

Exercise Identity and Motivation
Research shows that a strong exercise identity helps people to feel more motivated to engage in behaviors that reinforce this identity. At the same time, motivation to exercise further develops one’s exercise identity (another reciprocal relationship). However, our motivation can stem from many different sources, including:

  • Intrinsic motivation: stems from personal enjoyment and interest
  • Integrated motivation: stems from one’s values
  • Identified motivation: stems from understanding the personal importance and benefit
  • Introjected motivation: stems from guilt
  • Extrinsic motivation: stems from external pressures

When it comes to the types of motivation that lead to positive health outcomes, intrinsic, integrated, and identified motivation are all going to lead to the most sustainable and positive outcomes (Ntoumanis et al., 2017). 

Dangers of an Exercise Identity
While it does seem that an exercise identity is generally helpful for building your motivation and consistently keeping up an exercise routine, this is certainly walking a fine line with exercise dependency and addiction. Exercise dependence is defined as an unhealthy and almost obsessive approach to exercise. People with exercise dependence tend to spend large amounts of time exercising at the expense of other activities, feel intense negative emotion when they don’t exercise, feel a constant need to increase their level of exercise, and feel out of control of their exercise behavior. Exercise dependence can negatively impact one’s health and well-being, increasing risk of injury and illness and in some cases leading to menstrual disturbances in women (Murray et al, 2013). 

It is believed that exercise dependence may result from a positive feedback loop associated with exercise identity. People who are high in exercise identity who hold beliefs that they have to work out a certain number of times per week often feel compelled to exercise consistent with this belief. They also want to feel the positive emotions associated with being a “good exerciser” and this serves to strengthen their identity, starting the feedback loop back over (Murray et al., 2013). The key to preventing one’s exercise identity from turning into exercise dependence is keeping these beliefs and feedback loop in check.

I once worked with a person in therapy who was a runner. They had a strong exercise identity, particularly related to running. They got to the point where they would run despite having serious shin splints, felt guilty every time they drove past someone running and they hadn’t run yet that day, and felt that they didn’t have any option but to run. This person, and others with exercise dependency, had a difficult time with abstaining from running despite being advised to by two different physicians and now their therapist. This was a classic case of exercise dependence. 

Tips for Managing Exercise Identity
So then, how do we walk the fine line of developing a healthy exercise identity while also not crossing over into exercise dependence? The following tips will help in this process. 

  • Just Exercise: Sometimes the answer is as easy as to just start (but is that really easy?). Because our exercise identity is highly dependent on past experiences with exercise, finding ways to exercise that bring you positive emotions (happiness, joy, rejuvenation) and doesn’t overwhelm you is a great way to build the habit. Start out with low expectations with regards to frequency, duration, and intensity and build those as you find what works best for you and your body.
  • Find your Motivation: Because motivation can help to build your exercise identity, it can be helpful to start by developing your motivation to exercise. We know that intrinsic, integrated and identified motivation sources are going to lead to the best outcomes. So, be sure to find exercise that you enjoy, educate yourself on the benefits of exercise (and problems with not exercising), and work movement and health into your personal values. Read this article on how to understand and improve your motivation to exercise.
  • De-couple Exercise from Self-worth: Who you are as a person is not defined or measured by how much or how little you exercise. If you were to ask family and friends why they love you, chances are good that your exercise habits are not on that list. Use exercise as a tool to make you feel empowered and positive about yourself, but not as a condition for how worthy you are as a being.
  • Visualization: So much of our identity stems from how we view ourselves. Research shows that visualizing the self as an exerciser in the future increases exercise behavior and self-efficacy for exercise (Harju & Reed, 2003). Therefore, simply imagining yourself as “an exerciser” may be one easy way to help develop an exercise identity.
  • Find Community: When you surround yourself with other people who value and spend their time on physical activity, it becomes a bit easier to engage in that behavior as well. Building a group of people with whom talking about exercise is natural can lead you to increase your motivation and hold yourself accountable to move your body. We recommend building community right here with other Fitness Blender users!

Let’s revisit the question at the start. Are you an “exercise person”? We would love to hear about how you have developed and maintained a healthy exercise identity throughout your life. 

Written for Fitness Blender by Haley S, PhD
Licensed Psychologist

References

References

Harju, B. L., & Reed, J. M. (2003). Potential clinical implications of implicit and explicit attitudes within possible exercise selves schemata: A pilot study. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, 10(3), 201-208. 

Murray, A. L., McKenzie, K., Newman, E., & Brown, E. (2013). Exercise identity as a risk factor for exercise dependence. British Journal of Helath Psychology, 18, 369-382.

Ntoumanis, N., Stenling, A., Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C., Vlachopoulos, S., Lindwall, M., Gucciardi, D. F., & Tsakonitis, C. (2017). Longitudinal associations between exercise identity and exercise motivation: A multilevel growth curve model approach. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 28, 746-753. 

Rhodes, R. E., Kaushal, N., & Quinlan, A. (2016). Is physical activity a part of who I am? A review and meta-analysis of identity, schema, and physical activity. Health Psychology Review, 10(2), 204-225. 

Strachan, S. M., Brawley, L. R., Spink, K. S., & Jung, M. E. (2009). Strength of exercise identity and identity-exercise consistency: Affective and social cognitive relationships. Journal of Health Psychology, 14(8), 1196-1206.

Strachan, S. & Stadig, G. (2015). I’m an exerciser. Common conceptualisations of and variation in exercise identity meanings. International Journal and Exercise Psychology, 15(3), 321-336.