How we think about exercise dictates whether we exercise or not!

May 19, 2020

Our thoughts affect what we do and how we feel. It may surprise you that one or two positive or negative thoughts can have a significant impact on your behaviour. A study conducted by Gyurcsik & Brawley (2000) demonstrated just how much an effect positive and negative thoughts can have on exercise behaviour.

Negative thoughts are generally barriers or expressed excuses, while positive thoughts tend to be focused on outcome expectations or benefits. In this study, retrospective thoughts (previous 7 days) and anticipated thoughts (upcoming 7 days) were analysed. Regarding retrospective thoughts, 52% of participants had at least one positive thought that occurred a minimum of 3 times in the last week and 77% of participants had at least one negative thought that occurred a minimum of 2 times in the last week. Anticipated negative thoughts were higher, being present in 79% of people and occurring 3 times per week. Examples of these types of thoughts include:


  • Physical health benefits (e.g., muscle gain, weight loss)
  • Motivation to exercise
  • Class enjoyment
  • General feelings of increased energy
  • Psychological health benefits (e.g., stress reduction)


  • Physical (i.e., muscle soreness, too tired)
  • Other specific comments
  • General thoughts about lack of time
  • Instructor related (i.e., bad instructor)
  • Lack of motivation to exercise
  • Exercise attire (i.e., not having proper clothes, too many clothes to carry around)
  • Inclement weather

Self-efficacy (the ability to bring an intention into reality), exercise intention (the desire to exercise) and exercise behaviour (performance of exercise) were investigated in relation to thought types to determine how thoughts and exercise relate. An example of self-efficacy would be having the thought to go for a 2km walk in the morning and following through with the action (and feeling amazing after it!).

Retrospective and anticipated thought frequency were positively significantly associated with self-efficacy, but only retrospective thought frequency was significantly correlated with exercise behaviour. This means that the more people thought about going for that 2km walk, both before and after the exercise, the more likely they were to do it! However, how people thought about the 2km walk after they did it (amazing, of course) indicated whether they were likely to exercise again. So, after exercise, if you think about how much you enjoyed the walk and all the benefits that come with it – the more likely you are to stick to it!

Exercise intention and attendance at sessions were significantly correlated in both thought groups and did not significantly differ between positive and negative thinkers. As thoughts became more positive, self-efficacy and attendance increased. So, the more positively you think about exercise – the more likely you are to go for that 2km walk and reap the many benefits of exercise.

What does this all mean? Overall, retrospective and anticipated positive thinkers had significantly higher self-efficacy and exercise attendance. So, if you want to change your behavior towards exercise the key is to think positively about it! Ways to stop any negative thoughts and to encourage positive ones include identifying any negative thoughts; asking yourself whether this thought is true; challenge the thought; and put thoughts into perspective. It may take up to 3months to change thought patterns, but it just takes practice. Each day is a new chance to practice seeing the glass half full! For further information and resources on thinking positively, visit

H.McDermott (AEP)

Gyurcsik, N. C., & Brawley, L. R. (2000). Mindful deliberation about exercise: Influence of acute positive and negative thinking. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30, 2513-2533. Doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2000.tb02448.x
Self-talk, retrieved on the 27th of April 2020