Behavior Change and MotivationCertified Personal TrainerFitness

Why You Should Avoid Using the Words “I Should” When Planning to Exercise

Exercise adherence and commitment vary from individual to individual. Some people have an easy time making exercise a regular habit, while others struggle to stay consistent and need a behavioral change. Some struggle due to barriers in their life despite their love for exercising. Others struggle because they do not enjoy it. A variety of factors can impact exercise adherence such as motivation, self-efficacy, self-confidence, exercise enjoyment, any personal or work-related barriers, etc. This discussion focuses on how our thoughts and feelings about exercise can impact whether or not we are successful in our goals.

The Cognitive Model

The model I like to use in describing why this occurs is the cognitive model. This model states that our thoughts impact our emotions, and our feelings influence our behavior. For example, if I think positively about exercise, I will have a positive attitude when I think about going to work out. This positive emotion will help lead to the behavior of exercising more often. Oppositely, if I think about, or say something negative about exercise, I might experience negative emotions. These negative emotions about exercising could limit how often I exercise or feel motivated to exercise long-term.

Avoid the Phrase “I Should”

Expanding on this further, when speaking or thinking about exercise, we need to be careful of using the language of “I should.” The word “should” implies an obligation or duty. In other words, someone has to do something.

In this example, someone saying to themselves, “I should exercise,” is telling themselves that “they are obligated, or have a duty, to exercise.” When we use this language, it decreases personal choice, empowerment, and desire to engage in exercise, simply by the words used. When we feel that we have to do something, not out of choice, it can decrease our motivation to engage in that behavior. That can be true of any practice, not just exercise.

Being told that we have to do something, or that we should do something, does not have the same power as “I want” or “I desire” to engage in that behavior. It is important to note that “should” is synonymous with “ought to,” “must,” “have to,” or even “required.” Be mindful that even if the exact wording is not the same as what I am talking about, other words have the same impact.

The word “should” is also used when an individual is criticizing someone’s actions. For example, “he should have done _____”. More often than not, when we miss a planned exercise session or class, we are saying this type of should statement to ourselves because we did not successfully do a behavior that we wanted to. See the examples below:

  • “I should have gone to the gym.”
  • “I should have exercised more this week.”
  • “I should have stretched.”

In all of these statements, there is a self-criticism undertone in the language used. All of these examples showcase a criticism over the fact that behavior did not occur. If we think back to the cognitive model, this type of thought will impact how we feel, and ultimately our behavior. If we tell ourselves any of the statements above, we might feel bad about ourselves for not doing something good for us. This attitude could decrease our self-esteem, self-confidence, and exercise motivation. Long-term, this could reduce someone’s motivation to exercise so much that they might not try anymore since they have consistently not met their expectations.

How to Reframe Your Communication

On a positive note, this choice in language is within our control. We have the power to choose to reframe how we communicate about exercise to others and ourselves. Overall, there is a different energy when saying the following statements:

  • “I want to exercise.”
  • “I desire to be fit.”
  • “I want to wake up in the morning to exercise.”
  • “I am exercising regularly.”

These phrases are significantly different than using the word should. There is a positive context behind using the phrases “want” or “desire.” For example, the word desire means “to have a strong feeling of wanting something or wishing something to happen.” 

It reinforces to the person using this phrase that they are getting to do something they want to, a behavior that will make them happy. Instead of being obligated to go to the gym, they want to go because of how it makes them feel. Both phrases will trigger positive emotions about exercise and lead to the behavior of training or exercising more often. Long-term, this language choice over time can help build exercise adherence and sustain exercise motivation.

Though this detail is just a small piece of what can impact someone’s overall exercise adherence, the goal is to shed some awareness on how our thinking can derail our best intentions. The next time you are setting your exercise goal or planning your week’s workouts, think twice about “should-ing” on yourself. Utilize the phrase “I want,” “I desire,” or “I am” to increase the positive emotions about engaging and planning to engage in exercise. All of these phrases will significantly help improve exercise behavior and exercise adherence long term.

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The Author

Dana Bender

Dana Bender

Dana Bender, MS, ACSM, CWWS, E-RYT. Dana Bender works as a fitness and wellness Program Manager for Health Fitness Corporation in downtown Chicago. Dana is also a National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach, an adjunct professor with Rowan University, and an E-RYT 200 hour Registered Yoga Alliance Teacher.

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