What is exercise psychology, and why is it for me?

Sport psychology is an increasingly well-known field today, however exercise psychology lags behind in its exposure. If you have ever asked one of these two questions: “what on earth is exercise psychology?” or “why would I see an exercise psychologist?” then read on.

What is exercise psychology?

You may have read a little about exercise psychology elsewhere on my website, however here I will go into more detail. The focus of exercise psychology is to empower people to make physical activity a life-long, valued part of their lives.

When I first started working as a personal trainer aged 19, I realised that in reality it was motivation that people were seeking, not simply information about what to eat and how to exercise. Sometimes people come across a personal trainer with whom they instantly “click” or develop a rapport, and this can be enough to spark and maintain positive change. For example, as a teenager I started having PT sessions with a lady who totally inspired me to make lots of amazing changes in my life, and to this day she remains a great friend and inspiration.

However, the issue is that the personal trainer is only there for say one or two sessions per week – the rest has to be done without them, which can be tough. So in my view, exercise psychology looks to transfer that autonomy over to the individual, so they create their own motivation and feel confident in taking charge themselves, with or without other people.

This typically involves:

  • Identifying and determining their values in life, and their motives for wanting to make exercise a sustainable habit
  • Creating motivation based on that person’s intrinsic values
  • Figuring out what they enjoy in terms of exercise, and also how to make exercise enjoyable
  • Looking at how to integrate more physical activity into their daily life
  • Identifying psychological, environmental and physical barriers
  • Making plans for sustainable behaviour change in terms of lifestyle and diet (i.e. not simply launching into an intensive regime, but focusing on adjusting habits so that making changes is simple and convenient)
  • Building on that person’s strengths, so that they remain engaged and satisfied with the process

These are just a few aspects. It is essentially about making exercise meaningful, satisfying and health-enhancing. But it isn’t just for those who struggle to exercise, it is also for people who perhaps struggle to find a balance between enough and too much . In today’s social climate, exercise dependence and psychological issues surrounding body image and disordered eating are rife, so exercise psychology also helps people to:

  • Find a balance between healthy and excessive amounts of exercise
  • Develop a healthier relationship with their body
  • Optimise their focus so that their health is looked after and their goals do not damage their well-being

Some exercise psychologists with suitable experience also work to empower people to change unhealthy habits such as smoking, or even recover from addictions such as drug abuse or alcoholism. The emphasis on behaviour change within exercise psychology is widely applicable, even to areas such as academic study or physical rehabilitation.

Why or when would I benefit from exercise psychology?

In all honesty, most of us probably have something to gain from exercise psychology! But here are some reasons that you may benefit:

  • If you struggle to motivate yourself to exercise
  • If you are trying to change some aspect of your lifestyle such as diet, but have no idea where to start and how to do it
  • If you are great at getting started with exercise, but you soon peter out and lose enthusiasm
  • If you have been recovering from an operation or illness, and need some help building up healthy habits again
  • If you want to get enjoyment out of your exercise
  • If you want to exercise for deeper reasons than appearance, and gain more personal satisfaction and achievement through it
  • If you want to build confidence to exercise e.g. working out in public places, trying new things, joining a group/club

There can be some confusion here as to how fitness professionals or health coaches differ from exercise psychologists, so to finish off here are some clarifications:

  • My status as a trainee sport and exercise psychologist is what allows me to competently deliver planned psychological support and interventions. This qualification serves to assure clients that I am experienced in and capable of safely applying psychological principles to effect positive change in an ethical way.
  • On the other hand, my personal training qualification is what allows me to give dietary advice and physical activity prescriptions; this does not come under the realm of “exercise psychology” alone.
  • Of course, health coaches are in the business of supporting people in engaging in healthy behaviours, and personal trainers will often work to motivate their clients to exercise and eat well. However, each qualification has its own area of expertise, and it is essential that each type of professional is careful to practise only within their area of competence.

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