• Psychology of Movement
    Why uncertainty impact exercise
  • Why uncertainty impact exercise
  • Tackling uncertainty may not be something that you think about when it comes to exercise. But here is why it is important…

    Our brain systems are designed to detect uncertainty in all areas of our lives. Whether that is in the exercise space or anywhere else in your life.

    When there’s uncertainty, the sympathetic nervous system is activated (to varying degrees, depending on the level of uncertainty). You become more vigilant and on high alert because uncertainty means you don’t know exactly how things will turn out and therefore how you can most effectively act.

    So how does this relate to exercise?

    General uncertainty in your life - particularly when there is a lot of it over a long period of time - is metabolically costly and stressful. Chronic overactivation of your sympathetic nervous system causes fatigue and over time can negatively impact your health, including your wellbeing and vitality.

    Additionally, uncertainty adds extra cognitive load to your day because you are having to engage in more planning, anticipating, problem-solving, and decision-making. The result is that your energy levels are further depleted, meaning decision-making processes around things like exercise are vulnerable to interference from emotional states and fatigue.

    This effect is then magnified if there is uncertainty around exercise itself. It might be that you’re uncertain about when you will exercise, how to do the activity of your choosing, which activity to choose, or even whether your efforts will be effective. This lack of clarity means having to work hard to make decisions, which ultimately poses a barrier to consistency with exercise.

    Create implementation intentions

    So it’s worth becoming aware of where you have uncertainty in your life and specifically if there is any uncertainty in the exercise space. Of particular note are things that you find yourself frequently worrying about, dreading, problem-solving, or persistently mulling over.

    Then consider if there are ways you can minimise the amount of uncertainty around those things. Of course that may involve coming up with possible solutions, but just as important is considering how you are going to pick a solution when the time comes, because uncertainty is often centered around which solution will fit best.

    With exercise, it can be helpful to create a flowchart to help you pick out of plan A, B, and C depending on your circumstances. These are a form of what psychologists call implementation intentions: “if X happens, then I do Y”. For example, (A) “if I have to work late and feel extremely tired, I will do ten minutes of stretching when I get home” However, (B) “if I have to work late but still feel energised, I’ll go for a jog” and (C) “if I finish work on time I’ll go to the climbing wall.” This way, you have 3 clear options that depend on pre-defined circumstances, meaning you may not know what will happen in advance but you will know what to do at the time.

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