• Psychology of Movement
    Intentions behaviour gap
  • Intentions behaviour gap
  • We like to think that we are in control of our behaviour. It seems like it should be as simple as deciding that we want to exercise, planning it out, and then doing it. However, we all know it isn’t that simple.

    We can set out with the best intentions in the world, but then the workout never happens. Consistency never develops, and this is far more common than you might realise. A meta-analysis (an analysis of multiple studies) found that 46% of the people studied who intended to exercise didn’t exercise.


    Researchers call this the intention-behaviour gap whereby people intend to act but do not follow through with behaviour. Intentions are an important prerequisite for healthy behaviour change – studies show that without them we are unlikely to act. However, intentions alone aren’t enough.

    There are many reasons for this, but here are some examples to get you thinking:

    1. You are creating intentions based on incomplete information: people often intend to exercise without considering the full picture. For example, perhaps you haven’t considered how your intentions might be impacted by your mood, your workload or how much time it will actually take. Often, we set intentions when we are feeling motivated (the motivational phase). But then you must deal with the realities of actually doing that behaviour. At this point, different strategies are needed to develop consistency. Check out our previous article on strategies for maintenance.
    2. The reality turns out differently to what you imagined – we set intentions based on what we think our life will be like. However, what happens when unexpected life events happen. Perhaps your child gets sick and you need to look after them or you get a more appealing offer of a coffee date with a friend. Often people create intentions without plans for overcoming barriers. We think that we will somehow “push through” the apathy or “just say no” to any requests fired at us before we leave the office, but it isn’t always so easy when it comes down to it. To tackle this, action planning is important. Acknowledge what might get in the way – lack of energy, low mood, a bad night’s sleep and decide how you will respond to these situations.
    3. You haven’t taken your confidence into account: sometimes we don’t feel confident about what we intend to do. Whilst confidence can come from the act of doing, regularly being outside your comfort zone can require a lot of energy. Therefore, it is worth considering whether you actually feel confident to take the necessary steps and attempt the exercise task you have set yourself. As we have previously shared, self-efficacy is a key predictor of exercise behaviours. This refers to your beliefs about your capability to accomplish certain tasks even in the face of barriers for example “I am certain that I can exercise three times a week even with my current workload”. Whilst we might intend to do something, sometimes deep down we don’t truly believe we can. This means that when we face a setback we may automatically see it as evidence that we can’t do it, rather than an obstacle to be overcome. That’s why it’s important to start small with your intentions and subsequent actions. Once you have developed some consistency and greater confidence, then you can take on more.
    4. Stated versus revealed preferences: the idea of "stated versus revealed preferences" suggests that we often like to think that we want something, but in reality we want something different. We might intend on working out based on what we think will be approved of by others, or based on who we wish we were. But all of this can be discordant with our own authentic goals. To tackle this it can be beneficial to consider the drawbacks of doing the intended behaviour as well as the benefits. In addition, you may find your goals are more extrinsically motivated and can take steps to make your intentions more intrinsically motivated – see here for ideas.

    But intentions still matter

    Intentions are important because without them we are unlikely to act. So, the question becomes: how can we form intentions more effectively? The problems with intentions differ on an individual basis, so first consider whether any of the factors above ever trip you up, and how they manifest in your life. But you can also ask yourself: "when do I follow through on my intentions to exercise? and WHY/HOW?" It’s useful to look at both when things go wrong but also when things go right.

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