Analysis: a new study is seeking to find initiatives to support those who want to stay the course with New Year exercise resolutions

"We are all individuals": Monty Python's famous quote ring true when we look at the reasons and rationales for those who start but abandon physical activity programs. Every year without fail, the annual fitness goals we set around the New Year are abandoned within a matter of weeks.

Several frameworks and theories have been developed to explain this exercise fall-off. These include the Goal Setting Theory (such as setting a performance goal of walking 10,000 steps a day) and the Motivation and Behaviour theory (the ability to sustain the motivation to change our behaviours). 

Current research at DCU aims to test the ability of decision-making games and computational psychology to predict those most likely to give up their fitness regimes. If it is possible to digitise these responses and build predictive algorithms, then it may be possible to tailor initiatives to support these individuals to stay the course.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, clinical psychologist Dr Malie Coyne on New Year resolutions amid a global pandemic

This is a really important issue for public health.  Too many of us set out each year with the best of intentions to get fit and healthy yet, despite the health impacts and our good intentions, many start and give up fitness regimens.

Why does this happen? What are the factors that cause this non-adherence to self-made fitness goals. Can we use methods from computational psychology to predict those most likely to give up? Does the issue reside in the resolution itself and tied to that specific goal-setting activity? Is it down to motivation, behavioural change and personality traits, or is it a complex combination of  all of these?

This is particularly relevant during the current climate of pandemic and lockdown. If we can use advanced analytics and computational modelling to predict those mostly likely to abandon their exercise goals, we can build better and more targeted support to help keep them on track.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Professor Niall Moyna on the importance of keeping fit while working from home

Our research is using a set of new interdisciplinary methods to help understand this problem. This involves bringing together ideas from artificial intelligence and psychology to focus on a better understanding of human behavior and our decision making. This is done through capturing our interactions in the wild in everyday settings and applying ideas from neuroscience, psychology and machine learning to develop a more holistic picture of how we really act, think and behave. Through this data, we can search for patterns, identify recurring behavior and witness how it changes over time as our motivations, desires and life contexts change.

As a society, we are becoming more sedentary. In some countries, inactivity levels can be as high as 70%, with one in four adults and three in four adolescents not achieving the recommended WHO activity levels. These recommendations suggest that 18 to 64 year old adults should undertake "at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week" or "at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week" or "an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity". These recommendations have emerged from a growing awareness of the impact of sedentary behaviour on an individual's health and wellness.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Professor Niall Moyna on the importance of taking on realistic goals for exercise and weight loss

According to the WHO, almost 2 million deaths per year are due to physical inactivity. From a global perspective, this places sedentary behaviour as one of the 10 leading causes of mortality and morbidity. Physical inactivity can also have a significant effect on an individual’s health and quality of life and can increase the probability of developing several chronic diseases including heart disease, obesity, high blood cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes.

A considerable proportion of the world’s adult population make - and then fail to keep - New Year’s resolutions. A 2018 poll of just over 1,000 adults found that almost three-quarters of respondants (73%) failed to stick with their fitness goals. According to Strava, there's even a "quitter's day" when individuals are most likely to give up their New Year resolutions (it was January 17th last year).

Similar statistics have been reported for gym memberships and usage with some claiming the drop-off rate is as high as 80%. A review of over 5,000 gym members revealed a dropout rate of 47% by the second month, 86% by the sixth month, and 96% by the 12th month. These figures are supported by a Spanish study of nearly 15,000 gym members which showded that between 47% and 56% dropped out over the course of a year.

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A guide to the Fitness Goals Study

The ongoing DCU Fitness Goals Study combines results from a decision-making game with contextual insights from personality trait assessments and objective data from Fitbit. Over the last decade, decision-making games have been to study cognition and motivation. Choices made by those playing these games provide insights into real-life decision making and this data develops a predictive model that can identify those most likely give up their fitness goals. This information has the potential to be used to develop more targeted support to ensure those who embark on fitness programs are successful. For those who wish to find out more, the Fitness Goals Study App can be accessed by downloading the AthenaCx App on Apple or Google Play


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ