Social Cognitive Theory And Exercise: How Can We Stay Motivated?

We know that exercise is good for us. There is plenty of evidence regarding its health benefits! So why do so few of us do it? Some people face external barriers to exercise, like a lack of access to facilities or equipment, financial barriers, or physical limitations. But many others have the physical and financial means to exercise — they struggle with motivation.

Social cognitive theory (SCT) is a theory about motivation and behavior that may help to explain motivational obstacles to exercising regularly (Bandura, 1986). The most prominent construct within SCT is self-efficacy, which refers to one’s confidence in their ability to perform a certain behavior under specific circumstances. After all, why would you attempt a behavior if you’re sure you’re going to fail?

Multiple types of self-efficacy have been identified within an exercise context (Rodgers, Hall, Blanchard, McAuley, & Munroe, 2002). Task self-efficacy refers to confidence in one’s ability to perform the specific movements associated with various exercises, for example, being able to perform a squat safely, with proper form. Coping self-efficacy refers to confidence in one’s ability to exercise regularly in challenging circumstances — for example, in bad weather, when not feeling well, or while on vacation. A key subset of coping self-efficacy is scheduling self-efficacy, referring to confidence in one’s ability to make time for regular exercise.

Another important construct from SCT is outcome expectancy, as this can influence self-efficacy and subsequent behavior (Bandura, 1986). The incentive for performing a behavior depends on your perceptions of the likelihood of a behavior resulting in a particular outcome and the value you place on that outcome. The greatest incentive to perform the behavior results when you expect that a behavior will result in an outcome that you value highly. However, if your expectations are not met, you may lose motivation for that behavior. It can be difficult to accurately predict the likelihood of outcomes when you are unfamiliar with the behavior.

We wanted to better understand the influence of outcome expectations and self-efficacy in people who were new to exercise, so we recruited 35-65-year-old non-exercisers for our study. We gave them a year of free access to a small, private fitness center on our university campus and a structured, progressive exercise program designed by an exercise physiologist. The program included both strength training and cardiovascular exercise. Participants received an orientation to the program and the fitness equipment, and a fitness attendant was present at all times to answer questions or assist with proper use of the equipment. Participants were asked to complete three workouts per week but were free to create their own schedule, fitting in their workouts any time the fitness center was open. We did not provide any motivational interventions, because we were interested in understanding natural changes and differences in motivation for exercise.

Some participants, (“completers”), finished the full year of exercise, but others (“dropouts”), discontinued their participation at various points throughout the year. We conducted semi-structured, one-on-one interviews with close to twenty participants from each group, asking them to reflect on their experiences with the exercise program. We asked about what they had expected going into the program, and what actually happened — whether expected or not. Here’s what we found.

The dropouts experienced some positive changes, like feeling stronger, less stressed, and more energetic. However, they were also disappointed by the lack of change in their physical appearance. Many began the program thinking that they would lose weight and gain muscle tone, and when that didn’t happen, their motivation started waning. Most of the completers began the program for similar reasons, expecting weight loss and dramatic physical transformations. But when that didn’t happen, they shifted their focus away from appearance and toward those other benefits — having more energy and strength and feeling better mentally and emotionally.

The completers talked about gaining confidence in their ability to perform exercises, which they attributed to their initial orientation, ongoing access to support from staff, and their repeated exercise sessions over the course of the year. Although some completers initially viewed the fitness equipment as intimidating, at the end of the program, they said they would now feel comfortable walking into a gym on their own and knowing what to do.

The dropouts also reported feeling confident in their ability to perform the exercises (task self-efficacy) but were not confident in their ability to exercise regularly (scheduling self-efficacy). Those who dropped out early in the program talked about struggles with fitting in exercise into their regular weekly routine, especially given the somewhat limited gym hours. They quickly determined that they could not make it work. Participants who dropped out later on in the program reported unexpected events that significantly changed their schedule and time available for exercise. These events included promotions, the birth of a child, a parent’s illness, or a change from day shifts to night shifts.

While some of these scheduling issues were truly unavoidable, some dropouts suggested that their real problem was with prioritizing exercise. If they were honest with themselves, they had the time and ability to exercise, but it meant giving up other activities. They suggested that a greater degree of social support and accountability from others would be helpful in making exercise a priority. In contrast, the completers derived accountability from the act of signing up for our exercise study. They cited their desire to support our research and “not mess up the study” as their primary motivation for showing up every week.

One of our most surprising findings was that participants who completed the full year-long program still had a drastic decrease in the frequency and intensity of their exercise after leaving the study. This contradicts assertions that health behaviors can become well-established after six months of regular engagement (White, Randsdell, Vener, & Flohr, 2005). Although many completers reported adequate time, financial needs, and access to fitness centers, they said they struggled to get themselves to a gym without the accountability that was provided by the exercise study.

So what does this all mean for the average would-be exerciser, who isn’t enrolled in an exercise study? There are several takeaways:

1. Expectations and perceived outcomes matter. Exercising three times a week provides many benefits, but weight loss isn’t one of them. Exercise and physical activity should be promoted for the right reasons — to experience greater mental wellbeing, strength, and energy.

2. Although the focus of this study was on exercise, which is planned, structured, and purposeful, you don’t have to exercise to receive the benefits listed above. Short bouts of physical activity throughout the day work just as well and can provide a way of getting around those scheduling issues. For example, try taking the stairs whenever you have the option, and choose active forms of transportation instead of driving short distances.

3. Seek support. When you’re overwhelmed with work or caregiving, see if there are tasks you can delegate to someone else, for example, your partner or a colleague. Talk to your employer and see if there are adjustments that can be made to help you better accommodate exercise, for example having some flexibility in work hours.

4. Seek accountability. Find a workout buddy or, if finances allow, a personal trainer. It’s helpful to be accountable to someone who isn’t too close to you. Our study included married couples and siblings who said they found it too easy to talk each other out of exercising. If you buddy up with someone you don’t know as well, you’ll feel more strongly compelled to show up at the gym when you say you will.

The bottom line is that motivation for exercise is complex and fragile. Hopefully, these four tips will be helpful in the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle!

This work was conducted by Heather K. Larson, Kimberley McFadden, Tara-Leigh F. McHugh, Tanya R. Berry, and Wendy M. Rodgers at the University of Alberta.  Their findings are described further in two articles: You can’t always get what you want: Expectations, outcomes, and adherence of new exercisers, published in the journal Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, and When you don’t get what you want—and it’s really hard: Exploring motivational contributions to exercise dropout, recently published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 


  1. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Rodgers, W. M., Hall, C. R., Blanchard, C. M., McAuley, E., & Munroe, K. J. (2002). Task and scheduling self-efficacy as predictors of exercise behavior. Psychology and Health, 17, 405-416.
  3. White, J. L., Randsdell, L. B., Vener, J., & Flohr, J. A. (2005). Factors related to physical activity adherence in women: review and suggestions for future research. Women & Health, 41(4), 123-148.