Imagine Yourself Fit… Then Make It So

Can you think your way into fitness? Starting with a psychological approach of adopting an "exercise identity" can help keep you moving.


There are countless barriers to becoming and staying more physically active, but new research shows that one of the strongest psychological factors that helps people commit to exercise in the long term is to self-identify as exercisers.

Once exercise becomes part of a person’s identity, it provides strong motivation to play the part, even when obstacles and time pressures inevitably come up.

There are certain characters that come up when each of us imagines an “exerciser” — this could be someone who plays a lot of sports, or goes to the gym, or takes a walk during every lunch break no matter how busy their schedule.

Shaelyn Strachan, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Manitoba, wants to better understand how adopting an exercise identity works, effectively allowing people to think their way into routine fitness activities.

Strachan showed that even thinking about not exercising for an extended period makes people with strong exercise identities uncomfortable. But not only that, they were more motivated and had more concrete plans about how to get back on track than people who did not identify as exercisers; their intentions were backed by plans.

And when asked what drives their motivation, it was more likely that self-identified exercisers would cite enjoyment or values instead of guilt or external pressure.

But how can you achieve an exercise identity if you aren’t as active as you’d like to be? Strachan recommends starting out simply by picturing your future active self. In a study of retirees, this simple thought exercise helped them become and stay more active weeks and months later.

Next, you need to get moving in any way that fits inside your lifestyle, and then make it a routine. When Strachan recruited inactive women to participate in physical activity for 16 weeks, they all identified more strongly with an exercise identity regardless of their new activity duration or intensity. So if your fitness goal is to take your dog on more long walks, you can wear your exerciser badge just as prominently as someone who decides to train for a marathon.

Lastly, the more your exercise identity spills into other aspects of your life, the better. This could include exercising in a group or joining a sports team, or talking about your hiking trips at the water cooler.

In our busy lives, it’s a challenge to fit in physical activity. Whether it’s getting off a stop early and walking the rest of the way home, or signing up for those fitness classes you’ve always wanted to try, it all starts with intention and planning. The more you can make exercise part of who you are, the more likely you’ll be able to keep it part of your daily life in the long term.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.