Sport & Exercise Psychology: An Introduction​

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What is Sport and Exercise Psychology

Sport and exercise psychology professionals are concerned with how involvement in sport, exercise, and physical activity may improve personal growth, development and well-being throughout a persons' lifespan. Additionally, sports psychologists are also interested in assisting coaches in working with athletes as well as improving athletes' motivation levels. Sports psychology has been defined as (i) ‘the study of the psychological and mental factors that influence and are influenced by participation and performance in sport, exercise, and physical activity’, and (ii) ‘the application of the knowledge gained through this study to everyday settings’ [American Psychological Association].

What is Physical Activity?

This section introduces you to the fundamental models linking physical activity and health. Additionally, we outline the difficulties faced by applied social psychologists in the field of physical activity and health. The aim, therefore, is to provide necessary contextual awareness of the health, social, and economic problems existing by inactive population groups in a developed world. The emphasis is on the significance of applied social psychology to inform and drive interventions to increase the levels of physical activity behaviour in sedentary population groups. Also, the different social-psychological theoretical methods to physical activity behaviour will be discussed.

Individuals often discuss sport, exercise, and physical activity in a diverse, unstructured way, and sometimes use the terms synonymously. It appears, that people do not understand the differences between these modes of physical activity. It is, therefore, necessary that these terms are correctly defined before discussing the importance of the physical activity to health and how social psychology can contribute to an understanding of these behaviours.

The term physical activity is usually used to refer to all modes of physical movement that expends energy, regardless of features ( i.e. type, location, mode, and intensity). Pate et al. (1995) defined physical activity as ‘any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that result in energy expenditure’. Physical activity can, therefore, be deemed as an umbrella term under which other more specific forms of physical activity fall under (e.g. exercise and sport are subtypes of physical activity). Exercise has been commonly referred to as structured physical activity with an overriding purpose of improving individuals physical health benefit (i.e. losing weight). Examples of these types of exercise activities include jogging, cycling, swimming, rowing, and walking.

Sport is another mode of physical activity but is more organised and structured than exercise. Traditional sports normally has explicit sets of rules, and usually includes competition with others. Exercise can, however, also be less structured with certain professions requiring physical movements (lifting and moving objects) while others require walking to complete work objectives. Essentially, exercise has several elements that determine the degree of health benefit it can provide (i.e. type, intensity, frequency, and duration). Exercises that involve and recruits large muscle groups over extended periods and is of a vigorous-intensity tends to be preferred by exercise professionals because this type of exercise places a greater degree of physiological stress on the cardiovascular system and conceivably increases the daily energy expenditure of the individual. If individuals perform the exercise activity frequently it can assist in ameliorating risk from cardiovascular disease, promote skeletal and psychological health, and can reduce the risk of other illnesses (i.e. cancer, type II diabetes, and obesity).

The Physical Inactivity Epidemic

There is a strong body of evidence that supports the inter-relationship between regular and vigorous physical activity and cardiovascular, skeletal, and mental health. Research has also focused on the descriptive epidemiology of physical sedentariness among populations in the developed world. Such research aims to understand the degree to which people achieve the suggested levels of physical activity associated with good health.

Results from such studies have suggested that there is an epidemic of inactivity among these populations. Evidence from national health surveys in the United States (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention 2014) and the United Kingdom (British Heart Foundation 2015) reports that approximately 30 per cent of people did not participate in any physical activity. In 2012, in Scotland and England met the guidelines (67% of males over 16 years). More males achieved the recommendations than females with physical activity declining with age for both genders. For example, in Scotland, 68% of females aged 16-to-24 achieved the physical activity guidelines, but in women aged over 75 only 21% did. Data from the Welsh Health Survey (2013) reported that 37% of males and 23% of females were active on five or more days per week (data based on pre-2011 guidelines). Forty-seven per cent of females were active for one day or less in the past week. Males aged between 16-34 were the most active, with 44% performing physical activity on five or more days. However, activity levels then declined with age. In females, the percentage of those active remained similar between 16-to-54 years (26%). With activity declining after 55 years and only 9% of females over 75 meeting recommendations in physical activity.


A European Commission report on physical activity levels (2014)  presented findings from interviews conducted in all 28 European Union (EU) states, examining the physical activity levels of individuals. Self‑reported rates of regularly exercising or participating in sport varied considerably by country (although issues of report and recall bias, may show differences between countries). Bulgaria had the lowest prevalence, with only 2% of adults in these countries reporting that they exercised regularly. Ireland had the highest reported prevalence of regular exercise (16%). In the United Kingdom 10% of adults stated that they exercise or play sport regularly, higher than the EU average of 8%, these were both slightly lower than found in 2009 (UK = 14%, EU = 9%).

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Figure 1. Adults regularly exercising or playing sport by country, EU 2013 (British Heart Foundation 2015)

Together with these statistics that suggests that low levels of regular physical activity, surveys have also suggested that the majority of people believe that physical activity is important to health (British Heart Foundation 2015) but only about 50 per cent of people surveyed agreed that they needed to do more physical activity than they currently did. Of further concern is the static percentage of physical inactivity over the past two decades. Population studies have shown that the level of physical inactivity remained largely unchanged between 1986 and 2002 (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention 2003). In conclusion, the majority of adults in developed countries do not participate in adequate physical activity to gain the health benefits suggested by research, and levels of physical inactivity have remained comparatively static, while, paradoxically, the majority of people consider they do engage in sufficient physical activity.


Given this evidence, researchers have sought to investigate the aspects that affect individuals physical activity behaviour. The significance of identifying these aspects is paramount as understanding this can help to develop effective, theory-based interventions that individuals are most subject to change and will have the greatest influence on physical activity behaviour (Brawley 1993). Indeed, these types of social problems have benefited from applied social psychological theory research because these methods aim to explain the problem, presenting both an identification of the main influences and explain how those influences can affect behaviour.

The Role of Social Psychology

One method in which to gain an insight into exercise participation and adherence is to refer to social behaviour theories that identify the clear precursor variables and mechanisms underpinning the motivation of social behaviour, and then examine these theories in the domain of physical activity (Brawley 1993). These theories explain how the experiences of physical activity behaviour affect behaviour and offer a general guide as to how physical activity behaviour can be encouraged. For example, if a theory identifies attitudes as an important cause of behaviour, then it can be proposed that physical activity behaviour can be promoted by altering attitudes.

However, it is important to understand that theories from social psychology can guide promotion of physical activity participation only if they explain physical activity participation adequately (Brawley 1993). Regrettably, empirical evidence suggests that theories from social psychology cannot fully clarify more than 50 per cent of variance in physical activity behaviour (Hagger et al. 2002). Such levels acquired by social psychological models are below the levels of prediction obtained by models in other sciences. It would be naïve to assume that psychological interventions to be completely applicable in promoting physical activity participation. Therefore, from the standpoint of social psychology, the promotion of physical activity participation should be regarded as an ongoing process that consists of identification of experiences of physical activity involvement and of applied research that appraises effectiveness of interventions in promoting physical activity behaviour.

Developmental research aims at the identification of the most critical psychological variables that emphasise exercise involvement (Ajzen 1991). Social psychologists can contribute to the advancement of seminal research through an assortment of different study designs (i.e. cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental studies). These studies would evaluate the extended, modified, or developed forms of prevailing social psychological models in estimating exercise participation (Hagger et al. 2002). Conversely, we must differentiate between variables and psychological models that only predict exercise participation and those that predict and explain exercise participation (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980). Variables and research theories that forecast participation in physical activities only identifying individuals who exercise and those who do not. Unfortunately, such evidence merely identifies subpopulations who are at risk, it does not explain why some individuals engage in exercise and others do not. To explain why individuals engage in exercise is only achievable when exercise participation is predicted by variables that can be manipulated. For example, it is widely acknowledged that individuals attitudes can be altered (Eagly and Chaiken 1993), and therefore predictions attained by attitudes provide evidence regarding behavioural change. Therefore, development of models of exercise participation should focus on the identification of variables that both predict and describe exercise participation.

Developmental research has suggested that individuals perceived severity and beliefs about the benefits of healthy behaviour exert strong influences on readiness to participate in that behaviour, while perceived severity and barriers have lesser roles (Abraham and Sheeran, 2005). Furthermore, evidence indicates that the direct effects of perceived susceptibility, severity, predisposition, benefits, and barriers on health behaviours are trivial and are mediated by readiness (Abraham and Sheeran, 2005). There is also evidence to suggest that the health belief model does not appropriately capture all the psychological elements of social behaviour and that the model might benefit from considering the effects of other constructs including the self-efficacy on intentions and behaviour. Unfortunately, one limitation of the health belief model is that it does not offer clear operational definitions of its psychological constructs such as perceived vulnerability, nor does it specify how different variables can combine in influencing intentions and behaviour (Quine et al. 1998).


Social Cognitive Theories of Clients Exercise Behaviour

Understanding regular participation in exercise requires an understanding of the psychological constructs that predict and explain exercise behaviour (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980). This section aims to review the formative and applied research in social psychology on theories of social cognition and exercise behaviour. Conjoint to these theories is the inclusion of belief-based concepts including attitudes and motivational constructs such as intentions that are learned from preceding experience. Another important aspects of these models is that they focus on the development of motivation and the processes that lead to intentions. They do not challenge the more automatic processes that led to intentions nor do they aim to clarify the mechanisms by which intentions are transformed into behaviour.


Intentions and Social Cognitive Models of Exercise Behaviour

Numerous social psychological theories of human motivation feature the concept of intention. These theories propose that people are logical decision-makers who engage in the targeted behaviour by processing the accessible information concerning the advantages and disadvantages associated with that behaviour. Theories of planned behaviour also share the belief that human motivation is unidimensional (Deci and Ryan 1985) and that the notion of intentions, which represents motivation, is the most direct factor of human action (Ajzen 1991). Essentially, these theories concentrate on intention development and do not provide an explanation for the processes that underpin the representation of previously formed intentions (Ajzen 2006).


The Health Belief Model

The health belief model suggests that an individual’s readiness (intention) to perform a health behaviour is a function of the individual’s perceived susceptibility to a health condition and the apparent severity of that condition (Rosenstock 1974). This model suggests that readiness is determined by the individual’s beliefs about the benefits to be gained by specific behaviour, offset by their perceived barriers to doing that behaviour. Finally, the model suggests that readiness may not result in an apparent action unless some initiating event transpires to set the action process in motion.

Generally, the health belief model suggests that if an individual feels exposed to an illness, and if they perceived it to be severe, and they believe that a particular health behaviour will reduce the health threat associated with that illness, then they will have a high degree of readiness to engage in the health behaviour. For example, individuals may feel susceptible to cardiovascular disease because they have a poor diet and have been told by their doctor that they have hypertension. They may also believe that regular exercise will reduce the threat of cardiovascular disease. According to the health belief model, these perceptions are likely to motivate the individual to engage in exercise behaviours (Figure 2).

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Protection Motivation Theory


Rogers (1983) proposed the protection motivation theory (Figure 3) which is comparable to the health belief model and suggests that the performance of health behaviour is a function of two distinct considerations: (i) threat appraisals and (ii) coping appraisals concerning an illness that poses a significant health risk. As in the health belief model, threat/risk appraisals resultant from two sets of beliefs: perceived susceptibility and perceived severity. Perceived susceptibility is the individuals belief that they are vulnerable to the health threat and perceived severity is the individuals belief that the occurrence of the disease will have severe effects. Coping appraisals involve beliefs that a given behaviour will be effective in reducing the health threat (response efficacy) and beliefs that the individual possesses the necessary means to perform the health behaviour (self-efficacy beliefs), and beliefs regarding the perceived costs associated with performing the health behaviour (Rogers 1983). Protection motivation theory predicts that individuals will implement a health behaviour if they deem a disease to be severe and likely to occur and if they perceive that health behaviour is effective in reducing the health threat, something that they believe they are capable of doing.


Figure 2. The health belief model 

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Figure 3. Protection Motivation Theory 

Considerations towards designing interventions based on the health belief model and the protection motivation theory


An important aspect concerning the design of any proposed intervention is the information provided/gathered about the content of interventions. Generally the greater the relative importance of a factor in predicting intentions, the more probable it is that changing that factor will influence intentions and finally the individual’s behaviour. Studies that have adopted the health belief model and the protection motivation theory have demonstrated that appraisals related to the health risk (i.e. perceived susceptibility/vulnerability and perceived severity) can effect intentions to exercise. Milne et al. (2006) has suggested that manipulation of the threat and coping appraisals may be the most effective method in an attempt to change exercise behaviour.


The Reasoned Action Theory


Ajzen and Fishbein (1980) developed the reasoned action concept which has been regarded as one of the most significant models of intentional behaviour. According to this theory, the performance of volitional behaviours (i.e. exercise) can be predicted from an individual’s specified intention to engage in the behaviour. Ajzen and Fishbein conjectured that intention suggests the degree of planning an individual puts into their impending behaviour and signifies how hard individuals are prepared to try and how much effort they believe they will exert in the performance of that behaviour.


Intention is assumed to be the most immediate or proximal precursor of behaviour (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980). Intention is a function of a set of personal and normative perceptions regarding the performance of the behaviour, the attitudes and the subjective norms. Attitudes signify an overall positive or negative appraisal towards the target behaviour. Subjective norms represent perceived influences that may exert on the performance of the behaviour. The theory of reasoned action predicts that the more positive an individual’s attitude and subjective norm, the stronger their intentions to perform the behaviour. Lastly, intentions are hypothesised to lead directly to behavioural engagement and intentions are suggested to mediate the effects of attitudes and subjective norms on behaviour. Intentions are thus necessary to alter attitudes and subjective norms into behaviour.

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Figure 4.  Reasoned Action and Planned Behaviour