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Exercise: Why It Is a Challenge for Both the Nonconscious and Conscious Mind

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The epidemic of physical inactivity is an important societal and individual problem. Despite the well-documented health effects of physical activity, only 22% of the population exercises regularly enough to get the physiological and psychological benefits (S. N. Blair, 1993, Physical activity, physical fitness, and health. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, Vol. 64, pp. 365–376.) Why does 78% fail to do so? The problem is largely psychological and attributable to the processes of nonconscious and conscious mind. This paper reviews research on how nonconscious and conscious processing affects human behavior in general and exercise behavior in particular. Although there generally is no question about the effect of the nonconscious mind on human behavior, “unconsciously operating motives” in and of themselves are incapable of igniting and sustaining this complex behavior—at least until the behavior has been repeated with regularity and long enough to become consistently prompted by situational cues (as is the case for 22% of the population). There is even some evidence to suggest that the nonconscious mind actually works against exercise by embracing cues and excuses for not exercising. A related problem for both the nonconscious and conscious mind, especially that of the occasional exerciser (54% of the population), is that exercise poses a threat to one's sense of freedom and choice (i.e., “you must do it or else”). The resultant psychological reactance leads to attempts to restore this freedom, but it is often accomplished by giving in to temptations (e.g., TV watching). Although people recognize fitness and health as important human conditions, they often pursue these goals by using exercise as a means toward another end (e.g., to lose weight). In doing so, they struggle cognitively with their need for autonomy while trying to balance it in interpersonal and leisure contexts. Such struggle depletes finite self-control resources and makes people more vulnerable to temptations. The net result is that both the nonconscious mind and the conscious mind fail to turn most people into rational thinkers and “self as doers,” who would do what is best for their health. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved)
... Is it simply a matter of conscious mental control, saying, "just do it," "get on with it"? It is clear from the reported statistics, however, that while some people succeed most fail in their attempts to achieve mentally demanding everyday goals (Iso-Ahola, 2013;Stroebe et al., 2013). For example, over 70% of the U.S. population is overweight and only about 22% exercises regularly. ...
... It has been argued that such demanding behaviors as exercise cannot be a choice among other leisure activities (Iso-Ahola, 2013, 2017a. Instead, when freedom of choice is suppressed or eliminated altogether by a long-term decision to undertake this behavior no matter what (e.g., going for a walk/run-rain or shine), nonconscious processing and the attendant automaticity of action is enhanced. ...
... An intriguing aspect of autonomy is that even if daily behaviors are presently viewed as obligatory, they can be turned into intrinsically motivating activities. For example, it is known that regular runners develop personal competence and expertise about their activity (e.g., subscribing to running magazines and buying expensive shoes), which increasingly helps them see running as their freely chosen activity, even if they originally had made a forced choice, or a negative choice, to run every day (Iso-Ahola, 2013, 2017a. A sense of autonomy grows with increased competence (Sheldon et al., 1996). ...
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Much of everyday life consists of obligatory long-term behaviors, from work itself to doing dishes. Although some activities (e.g., exercise) are harder than others, even the seemingly easy activities can turn into hard ones when repeated monotonously day after day. It is proposed that this paradox has its roots in two fundamental human tendencies: (a) following the path of least resistance and (b) avoiding monotony, boredom, and even stimulus deprivation. How does the human mind operate in the presence of these tendencies to get everyday tasks and activities completed? The first tendency is manifested in gradual reduction of conscious processing and incremental increase in nonconscious processing. Constant repeats of demanding behaviors reduce cognitive strain and energy consumption, enhancing automaticity through the strengthened cue-behavior link. Automaticity in turn makes task performance easier and more efficient, resulting in a greater likelihood of getting everyday behaviors done. However, the sheer repeating of behavior is not enough; rather, a key is to repeat-with-variety, which posits that conscious interjection of variability into routine patterns facilitates the completion of both demanding and nondemanding behaviors in the long run. It is important, however, that such conscious intervention does not activate a sense of freedom about engagement because if it did, the elevated sense of freedom would undermine attempts to repeat behaviors and complete tasks. Understanding task completion also requires a consideration of the object of consciousness: Being unconscious of the mental processes motivating an action but conscious of the experience of doing the action.
... However, there are logical reasons to expect nonconsciously experienced phenomena to be more replicable because of people's general tendency to delegate conscious thoughts to nonconsciously processed operations (28,37). The more frequently thoughts and behaviors are repeated, the more automatic and nonconscious they become (19,20,21). As nonconscious thoughts are cognitively nondemanding, they are less liable to conscious interference, and thus, other things being equal, more repeatable and replicable. ...
... If we are unable to persuade most people to get vaccinated even when facing serious consequences from not doing it, what hope is there for getting the 78% segment of the population that is sedentary to start exercising regularly? (19,20,21). A lot of original studies and constructive replications remain to be funded and conducted. ...
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As there are no universal constants in psychological, medical and economic sciences, only constructive-phenomenon replications are meaningful. Yet, psychologists continue to perform direct replications, as evidenced by recent preregistered multilab attempts at exact replications of the ego depletion effect. Statistics are driving the replication movement into a ditch because of an overemphasis on the determination of statistical magnitude of effects while ignoring commonsense magnitude and other criteria for evaluating phenomena’s validity, reliability, and viability. The nature of the human mind and the variability of psychological phenomena pose difficult challenges for the scientific method and insurmountable obstacles for precise replications in psychological sciences. The situation is no better in medical and economic sciences. The interaction effect of person (genetics) and environment (lifestyle) calls for constructive replications to determine, for example, drugs’ efficacy as a function of group and individual differences. The vaccine-vaccination paradox is an interesting case because psychological and medical sciences meet at this intersection. In all fields, science advances by theory building and model expansion, not by replication tests of statistical hypotheses. Rigorous logical and theoretical analysis always precedes and guides good empirical tests. The nonexistence of an effect is not viable if it can withstand rigorous logical and theoretical analyses. Empirical studies are mainly evaluated for their theoretical relevance and importance, not their success or failure to exactly reproduce the original findings.
... Although social desirability and heightened awareness through monitoring may be relevant across populations, they may be particularly influential among women in midlife with elevated CVD risk, who are aware of the benefits of regular PA for their health conditions and express self-consciousness about their failure to adhere to PA guidelines (Im et al., 2010;Hendry et al., 2010). These women may experience greater motivation for PA and reducing time spent sedentary at the outset of a research study -particularly if PA is presented as the research context (as in the present study) -as a way to reduce the discrepancy between their knowledge and behavior (Iso-Ahola, 2013). A regression to the mean effect may occur over the observation period, as more typical habits take over during their busy daily lives. ...
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Objectives: To estimate the extent of reactivity to measurement of physical activity (PA) and sedentary behavior among women in midlife with elevated risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Design: Secondary analysis of a 10-day observational study of PA and sedentary behavior. Main outcome measures: PA (steps, minutes of light PA, total minutes of moderate-to- vigorous PA [MVPA]) and percent time in sedentary behavior per day were assessed using ActiGraph GT3X tri-axial accelerometers in 75 women in midlife with elevated CVD risk (e.g. hypertension; MAge = 51.61, MBMI = 34.02 kg/m2). Two-level multilevel models were used to test for evidence of reactivity, with the addition of random effects to test for evidence of individual differences in observed trends. Results: All outcomes showed linear trends across days (ps < 0.001), though this masked what appeared to be meaningful dropoff after Day 1 or Day 2 (with little difference between subsequent days; srs ranging from 0.15 to 0.32). The random effect was significant only for percent time in sedentary behavior (χ2[1] = 10.40, p = 0.02). Conclusions: Consistent small to medium effects were found for all PA and sedentary behavior outcomes, underscoring the importance of considering measurement reactivity in populations with elevated CVD risk.
... Moreover, transportation researchers apply theories of self-control to predict risks while driving (Keane et al., 1993), educators examine the impact of self-control on academic performance (Englert & Bertrams, 2013;Oaten & Cheng, 2006;Tangney et al., 2004), and personality researchers have shown robust links between self-control and addiction (Kim et al., 2008;Schilbach, 2019). Among these studies, self-control appears as an independent, dependent, moderating, and mediating variable, and has been broadly applied to all manner of research questions ranging from dieting to exercise to religion to finances (Iso-Ahola, 2013;Liu et al., 2019;Reynolds & Baumeister, 2016;Sullivan et al., 2015). As such, the scientific literature suggests that self-control is a fundamental element of human behavior. ...
Article
The study of self-control occurs in many different types of experimental settings using a wide range of methodologies. In addition, measures of self-control vary in their procedures and operational definitions from simple questionnaires to complex scenarios where individuals must choose to act or not. The present summary draws on trends within the literature using widely accepted measures of self-control. The measures are organized based on established paradigms in the literature and focus on three categories: executive functioning tasks, delay of gratification tasks, and subjective-report surveys. We also include an “additional measures” category to capture measures that do not readily fit in these three categories. Finally, we discuss recent approaches to the scientific exploration of self-control and integrate the categories of measures used here within these approaches. This integration incorporates a wide range of research paradigms and provides direction for future studies.
... Furthermore, sociological and psychological structure of perceived freedom concept is accepted as a pillar on which many leisure theories are built 9 . For example, perceived loss of freedom may become detrimental to activity participation 10 . Therefore, perceiving a certain level of freedom while doing an activity is necessary in recreation. ...
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The aim of the study is to investigate the correlation between sensation seeking, life satisfaction and perceived freedom in leisure levels of individuals participating in sessions in horror themed escaped rooms and to compare these in terms of various variables. The sample group consists of 352 voluntary participants chosen by convenient sampling method. Participants answered demographic information form, “Sensation Seeking Scale Short Form”, “Life Satisfaction Scale” and “Perceived Freedom in Leisure Scale”. In the analysis of data; frequency, arithmetic mean, standard deviation were used for statistical results whereas t test, ANOVA and Pearson Correlation tests were used for the independent variables. As a result, most of the participants take part in the activity with their friends, all mean scores of the scales are high; and participating in the physical activities is an important aspect in terms of sensation seeking, life satisfaction and perceived freedom. There is medium level and positive correlation between PFLS, LSS and SSS. Keywords: Horror themed escape rooms, Life satisfaction, Sensation Seeking, Perceived freedom in leisure, Leisure.
... Furthermore, sociological and psychological structure of perceived freedom concept is accepted as a pillar on which many leisure theories are built 9 . For example, perceived loss of freedom may become detrimental to activity participation 10 . Therefore, perceiving a certain level of freedom while doing an activity is necessary in recreation. ...
... For example, seeing joggers in a neighborhood makes non-exercisers and occasional exercisers experience cognitive dissonance for not exercising themselves. However, with repeated exposure to this stimulus (a jogger), occasional exercisers solve the arisen dissonance problem through non-conscious rationalizations (Iso-Ahola, 2013). Extending this to the ego depletion effect, to what extent has a person's performance in Task B been influenced by non-conscious vs. conscious processing? ...
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Scientific evidence has recently been used to assert that certain psychological phenomena do not exist. Such claims, however, cannot be made because (1) scientific method itself is seriously limited (i.e., it can never prove a negative); (2) non-existence of phenomena would require a complete absence of both logical (theoretical) and empirical support; even if empirical support is weak, logical and theoretical support can be strong; (3) statistical data are only one piece of evidence and cannot be used to reduce psychological phenomena to statistical phenomena; and (4) psychological phenomena vary across time, situations and persons. The human mind is unreproducible from one situation to another. Psychological phenomena are not particles that can decisively be tested and discovered. Therefore, a declaration that a phenomenon is not real is not only theoretically and empirically unjustified but runs counter to the propositional and provisional nature of scientific knowledge. There are only "temporary winners" and no "final truths" in scientific knowledge. Psychology is a science of subtleties in human affect, cognition and behavior. Its phenomena fluctuate with conditions and may sometimes be difficult to detect and reproduce empirically. When strictly applied, reproducibility is an overstated and even questionable concept in psychological science. Furthermore, statistical measures (e.g., effect size) are poor indicators of the theoretical importance and relevance of phenomena (cf. "deliberate practice" vs. "talent" in expert performance), not to mention whether phenomena are real or unreal. To better understand psychological phenomena, their theoretical and empirical properties should be examined via multiple parameters and criteria. Ten such parameters are suggested.
... For example, why is it that most people do not exercise regularly even though physiological evidence has compellingly demonstrated that "exercise is medicine" for both prevention and treatment of major illnesses? The question cannot be answered by physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, or any other field of science, except psychology, because the answer lies in the operations of the human mind and the brain (Iso-Ahola, 2013. Similarly, it is the psychological scientists who are tackling the hardest problem of all problems in all of science (Gleiser, 2014): human consciousness. ...
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The idea of replication is based on the premise that there are empirical regularities or universal laws to be replicated and verified, and the scientific method is adequate for doing it. Scientific truth, however, is not absolute but relative to time, context, and the method used. Time and context are inextricably intertwined in that time (e.g., Christmas Day vs. New Year's Day) creates different contexts for behaviors and contexts create different experiences of time, rendering psychological phenomena inherently variable. This means that internal and external conditions fluctuate and are different in a replication study vs. the original. Thus, a replication experiment is just another empirical investigation in an ongoing effort to establish scientific truth. Neither the original nor a replication is the final arbiter of whether or not something exists. Discovered patterns need not be permanent laws of human behavior proven by the pinpoint statistical verification through replication. To move forward, phenomenon replications are needed to investigate phenomena in different ways, forms, contexts, and times. Such investigations look at phenomena not just in terms the magnitude of their effects but also by their frequency, duration, and intensity in labs and real life. They will also shed light on the extent to which lab manipulations may make many phenomena subjectively conscious events and effects (e.g., causal attributions) when they are nonconsciously experienced in real life, or vice versa. As scientific knowledge in physics is temporary and incomplete, should it be any surprise that science can only provide "temporary winners" for psychological knowledge of human behavior?
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Why do most people fail to exercise regularly? In light of theory and research, this paper shows that fitness activity is an affront to people’s sense of freedom; thus, it becomes a freedom-killing and leisure-killing activity. People fail to exercise because they cannot overcome the issue of freedom about exercise. Further, unlike other leisure activities, fitness activity also fails to promote freedom within. It offers “same-old, same-old”, while TV watching, for example, provides hundreds of channels from which to choose. The core problem is that most Americans view freedom one-dimensionally: freedom equals choice. This viewpoint sets up a confrontation between fitness activity and freedom and between fitness activity and leisure, and in both cases, fitness activity loses. There are two primary solutions to overcoming freedom about exercise. First, like children who with time and self-discovery finally overcome the irrelevance of freedom about having or not having to brush their teeth, people can grow into exercisers with time and education. This development, however, is likely to take generations, as with the reduction in the number of smokers. Second, at the individual level, it is possible to become a “self-os-doer” on one’s own or with the help of others (e.g., personal trainers). Society could help with the adoption of this psychological approach if it completely eliminated freedom about exercise by mandating that everyone work out for 30 minutes daily during working hours. Savings for the health-care system would be in hundreds of billions of dollars thanks to exercise’s positive effects on health.
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Over a century ago, T. H. Huxley famously remarked that "the great end of life is not knowledge but action" (1877). It is still reasonable to regard the major job of the human brain—even the brain of those as dedicated to pure thought as philosophers— as being the initiation and control of bodily movements. Thus it is no surprise that the motor system of the brain is extensive. In no particular order, movement-related regions include the primary motor cortex, supplementary and pre-supplementary motor areas, premotor cortex, frontal eye fields, cingulate cortex, posterior parietal cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia, thalamus, cerebellum, and, of course, most of the spinal cord. Complex reciprocal communications exist not only among these areas, but also between them and the somatosensory, visual and audi-tory cortices and various parts of the limbic system. For ease of reference, the phys-ical locations of most these brain areas are shown in figure 1.1. It can be seen that there is relatively little of the brain that is not involved in producing movements. The main aim of this chapter is to provide a short overview of how all these mul-tifarious brain areas interact to initiate and control movement. The hope is that this will provide background information that will be useful not only in understanding the other neuroscientific contributions to this volume, but also in constraining philo-sophical speculation on the question in the title of the book. Figure 1.2 displays the outline of such an overview. Clearly, the model shown in figure 1.2 has its flaws. Perhaps inevitably given the complexity of the real system, the model is heavily oversimplified. In the interests of showing the main flow of activity from area to area, it leaves out many known reciprocal connections. Parts of it remain hypothetical—in particular, the idea that the purpose of the frontal cortex/basal ganglia loops is to allow interaction between intention and motivation, and the inclusion of an arrow directly from "willed inten-tions" to "sensorimotor intentions." A further flaw is probably the lack of a box labeled "action initiation." But in the model's favor, it does represent some attempt to view what is known about the complexities of the motor system and its rela-tionship with the outside world as a whole.