Conscious-Nonconscious Processing Explains Why Some People Exercise but Most Don’t

Seppo E. Iso-Ahola

Department of Kinesiology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA

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Although it is well established by physiologists that exercise is the single best thing individuals can do for their health, most people are not regular exercisers. This failure poses an interesting but important question and challenge for psychological science. Why lack of success? Clearly, exercise is more a cognitive than physical battle. This paper reviews research from cognitive neuroscience to social psychology and proposes a theory in the form of a 3-stage model to explain why some succeed but most fail to become regular and habitual exercisers. The model elucidates how beginners, if successful, will progress on a continuum from fully conscious processing and little exercise (First Stage) to largely nonconscious processing and regular exercise (Third Stage). However, most beginners cannot get past the Second Stage, conscious-nonconscious-conscious (occasional exercise), and therefore fail to reach the third stage where this behavior is mainly driven by situational and contextual cues. This failure is reflected in findings that most beginners cannot get through five weeks without a lapse. The major obstacle in the second stage emanates from the combination of activated interdependent psychological processes: the human tendency to follow the law of least effort, especially after self-control depletion from daily work, and threats to personal freedom.  Exercise can only be understood in the temporal and social contexts associated with leisure time when most people are most likely to be able to engage in exercise activities. It is in this context that the interconnected conscious and nonconscious processes are activated. The ensuing battle within and between these processes prevents most beginners from moving to the third stage and regular exercise. Journal of Nature and Science (JNSCI), 3(6):e384, 2017

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