Ego-Depletion’s Role In Reaching Exercise Goals

It’s the time of year that many people are starting to give up on their New Year’s resolutions. If you are one of the many who have given up on their goal for the year, it may be worth taking on a new perspective of motivation for the year to come. The results of our study, published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise [1], demonstrate that motivation isn’t just the result of a one-off decision, but rather a process that plays out day-to-day. Our findings showed that people’s intentions to exercise – and whether they were successful in achieving their intentions or not – varies day-to-day, partially as a result of how much self-control people have left at the end of the day.

At the end of the day, if you’ve been especially busy or resisted a lot of temptations, you can feel “drained” and out of willpower. This feeling of drained willpower is referred to as ego depletion [2]. Ego depletion psychological theories suggest that self-control is a finite resource, and the more you “spend” throughout the day, the more depleted your self-control “account” gets, and the less effective you will be at overcoming temptations or using self-control to meet your goals.

We conducted a study to investigate what happens to motivation when people’s self-control “accounts” are empty. We asked 103 Australian university students to complete an online survey each night before they went to bed for seven consecutive days. We asked them to report how much time they spent doing various activities including exercise, academic work, sleeping, housework, etc. throughout the day; how much time they intended to engage in those behaviors the next day; and how ego-depleted they felt (e.g., “I feel drained,” “I feel like my will power is gone.”).

The findings revealed that on days when people felt ego depleted, people were less ambitious when making intentions to exercise the next day (i.e., they planned for fewer minutes spent exercising). Importantly, the effect of ego depletion on motivation was only prevalent for exercise, revealing that being ego depleted didn’t impact plans for other activities. These findings align with psychological theories proposing that even imagining physically effortful tasks like exercising can be exhausting when you’re feeling ego-depleted.

Not surprisingly, our findings also revealed that when people made more modest exercise intentions as a result of being ego-depleted, they were more likely to achieve those intentions the next day. More research is necessary, but our findings suggest ego depletion is an important aspect of daily motivation for exercise, impacting both the exercise intention and whether the intention is fulfilled.

So, rather than making a yearly goal, consider making daily exercise goals and make sure to reserve some self-control to implement your intentions before your “account” is spent.

These findings are described in the article entitled A daily diary approach to investigate the effect of ego depletion on intentions and next day behavior, recently published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

References:

  1. Rebar, A. L., Dimmock, J. A., Rhodes, R. E., & Jackson, B. (2018). A daily diary approach to investigate the effect of ego depletion on intentions and next day behaviour. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 39, 38-44. https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S146902921730660X
  2. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252-1265.

About The Author

Amanda L. Rebar

Dr. Amanda Rebar started as a post-doctoral research fellow with CPAS in May, 2013. She completed her PhD (2013) in Kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests include physical activity motivation - specifically automatic regulation of physical activity (e.g., habits, automatic evaluations), and the mental health benefits of physical activity. She loves structural equation modelling, hierarchical linear modelling, and the open-source data analyses program, R.

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