“Why don’t they just exercise and eat some fruit and vegetables”

“They say they want to be healthy, so why don’t they just do it?”

These are questions naïve health and fitness fanatics probably have thought to themselves on several occasions.

There is a very simple reason why though. Change is hard.

Think about it, when was the last time you made any serious changes to your daily routine?  When did you incorporate something new that would help you reach a goal?

For example, I have been inconsistently taking Spanish lessons for years. I go through phases of being on track, then life gets in the way and I fade off.

This is considerably easier and less time consuming than exercise or healthy eating. All I have to do is buy the lesson and block out 30 minutes to put my headphones in and go for a walk.

Exercise and healthy eating requires much more.

What Does It Require?

It might be a good idea to check out some articles like this one or this one to explain some terms.

In the least boring way possible I am going to attempt to explain some fairly nerdy theoretical information.

There are motivational phases for behaviors and subsequent planning phases.

People don’t plan to do behaviors that they aren’t motivated to do.

For example, in the last week I haven’t made a single plan to update my address for my car insurance.

I should (and will) do this but I’m not particularly motivated since my insurance agency is going to tell me that I will owe them more money.

On the other hand, I had no problem planning my trips to the movie theater to see Thor and Justice League. I was motivated to see it, so I planned out how I would do so.

Behavior Change Models: Integrated Behavior Change Model

Theoretical models for behavior create paths, paths that require fancy statistical testing called structural equation modelling. Take a look at the diagram below of the Integrated Behavior Change Model.


Let me explain:

Let’s say a person intends to do one behavior such as exercise consistently. Think of this as the WHAT.

The power/strength of this persons WHAT is going to influence behavior and this power and strength is going to come from their motives, or their WHY.

Stronger intentions are more likely to be translated over to behavior than weaker ones (i.e. my weak intention to change my address vs my strong intention to see Thor).

But intentions are influenced by attitudes, subjective norms1, and perceived behavioral control2. These variables are then influenced by the form of motivation a person has (fancy stats are used to show this).

For example, if a person is doing a behavior because they love it they are likely to have positive attitudes and feel competent. If they feel competent and have a positive attitude toward a behavior they will intend to perform the behavior.

Planning phases can help a person increase the likelihood of performing certain behaviors. But, the planning phase is useful only when motivational foundations are strong.

Let’s say someone has a strong intention to exercise. They have a strong intention because they have a good motivational foundation (i.e. they value exercise).

So, what do they do? Likely they plan out exactly when they are going to exercise. They might even make a contingency plan if their original exercise plan doesn’t work out.

For example, they might plan to lift at 7:00 am but then life gets in the way so they plan to run once they get home from work instead.

Why is it So Challenging Then?

Here is the bottom line. There is a lot that needs to go on in a person’s head before they are going to become consistently healthy.

We see this all the time, people lose weight then gain it back. People exercise for months straight and then just stop for a year.

So why does this happen?

I would argue that the foundation that they form their intentions on is generally weak and the behavior never becomes consistent.

A weight loss goal or a New Year’s Resolution isn’t a strong motivational foundation. It can certainly get a person started but it won’t keep them going for the long run.

Here are four forms of motivational regulation

Regulation type Description Example Metaphor
External regulation Achieve an external reward or avoid punishment

Compliance with demands from others

Exercising because of doctor’s orders squirt gun
Introjected regulation Avoiding shame, enhancing ego or pride Exercising to avoid feeling guilty sling shot
Identified regulation Acceptance of the value of the behavior Exercising because it is important to do so Bow and arrow
Integrated regulation Behavior is congruent with a person’s values and needs Exercising because the outcome is valuable

Being fit is part of one’s identity

Laser cat


Using the magic of metaphors let’s think of changing as going into battle against an army of 100 __________ (insert option based on nerd type: Orcs, Chitauri, Strom troopers).

Think of your motivational foundation as the weapon you take into battle. Going into a change effort with external regulation would be like blasting Orcs with a super soaker. You are going to get eaten, the ring will return to Sauron and you totally screwed over Middle Earth.

On the other hand, with a sound battle strategy if you have a sling shot (introjected regulation) you might be able to beat a few storm troopers, but odds are Darth Vader is going to choke you to death and you’ll probably get the whole rebellion killed.

Nice one dude.


But, if you’re going into battle with integrated regulation nothing can stop you. It’s like having a cat that shoots lasers out of its mouth. Not even Darth Vader can stop that.

In the end I would argue that people don’t stay consistent because they have the wrong motivational foundation.

With a weak foundation plans tend to crumble.

There are of course many other reasons why people fail but I consider it an especially important one.

Changing motivational foundations is challenging. If you want to exercise because you have a weight loss goal that is great. However, as you go through the process try to find activities that you love doing.

Try the following:

  • Try a variety of exercises and see which one makes you feel great
  • Set a small goal: (1) do 1 pull up (2) do one perfect push-up (3) run a 5k (4) learn how to master a squat or a deadlift
  • Try connecting your goal to a different value. Sure, losing weight will make you look better but it will also make you healthier which means you will have better quality time to do the things you love doing. Try making the link between your goal and life values.