Skip to main content

Theories That May Explain Exercise Drop Out

9 min read

By Kathi Cameron, MA, RCC

How many exercise dropouts find themselves sitting on the couch, TV remote in hand, wondering what the heck happened to all those good intentions?  Although there is no cure for exercise drop out or a pill we can take to ensure habitual workouts, there are many theories that can help explain why some can stick to a program and others would rather soak in a hot bubble bath (with a glass of wine in one hand and box of chocolates in the other).  

The following list explores 12 of the most influential theories that have come out of the study of exercise psychology.  Although these theories offer insights into exercise behavior, they may not speak to everyone.  Perhaps the key to understanding why we struggle with the exercise habit lies in all of following concepts…

1. Stages of Change Theory

This theory, formerly known as the Transtheoretical Model of Change, was created by James Prochaska and Carlo Di Clemente in 1983 and suggests people go through 6 stages of change. From not thinking about change to fully adopting a new behavior, this theory has been used in a wide variety of contexts including addiction, exercise adoption, and health care. It also allows for movement back and forth this continuum of change potentially falling back into the precontemplation stage after thinking we have made exercise a habit.

Stage one, pre-contemplation, occurs when we aren’t even considering a change (even if others think we should). Stage two, contemplation, occurs when we start thinking of change and is followed by the third stage, preparation. This stage usually finds the changer getting ready to take the next step into action, the fourth stage.  Action is the stage where exercise begins; smoking ceases, or nail biting stops. Maintenance, the fifth stage, occurs when we have committed to the change for over 6 months when, finally, the new behavior becomes second nature leading to the final stage, termination.

2. Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory was developed by Alfred Bandura in 1961 and suggests that behavior is conditioned and is motivated by various stimuli, our responses, and learning from our environment.  What’s more, if we observe a particular behavior enough and are reinforced to do so, we will do it more often.

For example, if we are raised in family where both parents are physically active, we tend to be active ourselves. In addition, living in a society that celebrates physical activity, we may continue to pursue exercise because of the positive returns (such as less body fat, more energy, and the positive comments that follow).

3. Theory of Reasoned Action

In 1967 Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen formulated this theory to help explain how our attitudes and perceptions relate to our actions.  The theory states that if we believe there will be a positive outcome to our behavior, we will engage in that behavior. In addition to our attitude, our social support system plays a large role in how we behave.  

For example, if we believe that exercise is a waste of time and socialize with a group of people who would rather go to the pub than the gym, the chances are good we will forgo the workout for a plate of nachos. Unfortunately, if we do want to make a healthy change, we may have to challenge our beliefs about working out and find a group of people that will support it to be successful.

4. Theory of Planned Behavior

After the Theory of Reasoned Action, Icek Ajzen went rogue in 1985 and suggested there was one piece missing from his initial theory, a perception of control.  In the Theory of Planned Behavior, not only are our personal attitudes and social pressures a factor, our perception of how much control we have over making this decision is influential in whether we do it or not. But wait…there’s more! The 3 factors mentioned only leads to good intentions to change. Between intentions and change there is the amount of time it takes to participate in that behavior that makes or breaks its’ success.

Therefore, if we hold a positive attitude towards exercise and hang with a crowd that values a good workout, but believe we have no time (one of the most popular reasons for not exercising), chances are good we will put our workouts off until tomorrow.  Conversely, if all the factors are in alignment, we may intend to start our exercise program on Monday.  If it is Friday, the time in between intention and behaviour is less and the chances are good we will go to that yoga class.  However, extend that start date any further and our chances begin to diminish.

5. Health Belief Model

This model was initially developed in the early 1950s by a group of social scientists trying to figure out why people do not engage in health prevention activities (such as exercise and health screenings). The foundation of this model includes 2 factors; firstly, the desire to avoid sickness or recover from it by doing the activity and secondly, the belief that the activity or health action will lead to this result.  

In addition, 6 additional beliefs have been added to the development of this model.  For exercise adoption to be successful, we need to believe we are susceptible to illness, we need to believe the possible seriousness of such illness, and we must believe that we will benefit from exercise.  Should we believe this, we now need to believe the effectiveness must outweigh the barriers (i.e., cost, discomfort, time).  If we weigh out the pros and cons and find the barriers are less than the risk of illness, we find ourselves at our first Pilates class.  The final consideration to potential habitual exercise is our overall confidence at performing the exercise and sticking with it.

6. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow, in his search to explain human behavior, designed his pyramid of human needs in 1943. His hierarchy of needs suggests that all humans move onto the next level of needs once we have accomplished the previous one.   This model helps us understand why a “healthy food” campaign may not influence people to eat more carrots when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from or why no one answers our “free personal training” add posted in a subsidized housing unit.

The first stage, situated at the bottom of the pyramid, includes the biological and physiological needs such as food, water, warmth, and sleep. The second refers to safety needs like freedom from fear, security, law, and order. The third includes love and belongingness that leads to the intimacy and connection we get from family and friends.  The fourth level relates to esteem needs like respect, status, mastery, and independence.  Finally, level 5, located at the tip of the pyramid, is the need for self-actualization that includes the realization of personal potential and self-growth.  

7. Self-Efficacy Theory

In 1997, Albert Bandura defined self-efficacy as the belief we have in our capacity to perform certain tasks. To increase one’s self-efficacy two things must be present; firstly, a belief that we are in control of our actions and secondly, that our actions are done intentionally.  In addition, Bandura suggests there are four important elements to building our self-efficacy including a successful experience, observing success in others (i.e. a sister who has adopted exercise successfully), verbal encouragement from others (i.e. coaches, parents, role models), and an interest in the exercise.

It is important to consider this when taking our first step towards a workout program.  If we do not feel we are in control or have an influence on our exercise experience, the chances are good we won’t participate or will drop out shortly after.  The key to exercise motivation and adherence, according to this theory, is to create a sense of belief within ourselves that we are in control and will create a positive experience for ourselves.  

8. Personal Investment Theory

The Theory of Personal Investment, created by Martin Maehr and Larry Braskamp in 1986, suggests that people will only put in the effort if they believe they will get something in return for their hard work.  Moreover, our perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes influence our meaning and evaluation of what we get back from our investment.

For example, if we believe that it takes 8 to 12 weeks to lose weight, and we don’t see those results in the allotted time, chances are good we will drop out of the program. This can help to explain the dropout rate for diets and exercise programs alike.  The key to sticking with it may be addressing our faulty beliefs about exercise and diet and creating a set of realistic expectations.

9. Social Cognitive Theory

The Social Cognitive Theory, as suggested by Albert Bandura in 1986, looks to our social context and relationship between us, our environment, and our resulting behavior. Like many other theories, this one believes that our past experiences, influences, and expectations play a large role in our engagement in certain behaviors.  Factors such as our learned experiences, our social environment, our ability to perform, and our exposure to role models have an influence on our decision to start jogging or eating more salads.  

Moreover, if we expect positive outcomes from our exercise program and have the self-confidence (or self-efficacy) to start and continue, we may become successful at sticking with our new jogging program.  Unfortunately, there are many people who don’t remember fun times in high school gym class which may help us to understand why some exercise as adults and some don’t.

10. Exercise Self-Schema Theory

A self-schema is a series of narratives we tell ourselves based upon our history and experiences in a particular context.  For example, if we grew up playing sports, our self-schema may relate more to the identity of athlete than bookworm.  Self-schemas can create a tendency for bias and may lead to self-perpetuating behavior.  The bookworm in school that never played sport may believe they aren’t athletically inclined and may never participate in organized or recreational sport.

A study out of the University of Victoria in 2008 examined a group of middle-aged women who identified as non-exercisers and their experiences with group fitness.  Interestingly, many women reported feeling intimidated in the gym by the “fitness” or “spandex” people leading them to shy away from participating.  Their self-schemas did not include exercise participation and created a barrier for exercise participation as middle-aged adults.

11. Self Determination Theory

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, in their examination of motivation in the mid-eighties, found that intrinsic factors (interests, feelings, and self-fulfillment) play a role in motivating us to lace up our running shoes more than the extrinsic factors like money and social rewards.

If we consider the most common motivations to exercise and diet relate to more external rewards (i.e. losing weight and looking good), it stands to reason why so many of us drop out and resume old behaviors.  The key to sticking with exercise is a focus on the intrinsic rewards like increased energy, strength, and health instead of what we look like.

12. The Fun Theory

After reviewing eleven theories that may shed some light on exercise behavior, we have saved the best for last. Although this theory does not originate from the great thinkers of academia, it is probably the most relatable and successful theories when promoting exercise participation.  An initiative of the car company, Volkswagen, The Fun Theory suggests that if the activity is fun people will participate. To get a visual of just how impactful fun can be to physical activity participation, check out The Fun Theory for a few examples.  

As personal trainers and fitness leaders can attest, if you are able to make exercise fun people will continue to participate.  So if fun is the hero in this story of exercise adherence, boredom is the villain that could thwart our best intentions.  It is important to tweak our workouts every so often to avoid getting bored with our program.  From changing up the music and exercise routine to integrating more variety, becoming bored with exercise is a sure fire way to fall off the exercise bandwagon.

Kathi Cameron, MA, RCC


Kathi has worked in the health and fitness profession for over 25 years and holds a degree in Kinesiology with master’s degrees in exercise and sport psychology and clinical counselling. She is currently a corporate facilitator in health promotion on topics relating to exercise, mental health, and addiction awareness. She is a firm believer in the prescription of exercise for positive mental health and that good health can be enjoyed at every size.

Diet and Nutrition News & Advice


Dietary Fibre Affects More Than Your Colon: How the Immune System, Brain and Overall Health Benefit Too
By Mark Wulczynski Diet and Nutrition News & Advice

Dietary Fibre Affects More Than Your Colon: How the Immune System, Brain and Overall Health Benefit Too

There’s no shortage of advice about what to eat, including hype about the latest superfoods that will help you live to 100, or about the newest restrictive diets that claim to help you lose weight and look beautiful. As a researcher from the Farncombe Family Digestive Health Research Institute, I’m well aware that there is […]

Read More about Dietary Fibre Affects More Than Your Colon: How the Immune System, Brain and Overall Health Benefit Too

4 min read

What’s the Best Diet for Healthy Sleep? A Nutritional Epidemiologist Explains What Food Choices Will Help You Get More Restful Z’s
By Erica Jansen Diet and Nutrition News & Advice

What’s the Best Diet for Healthy Sleep? A Nutritional Epidemiologist Explains What Food Choices Will Help You Get More Restful Z’s

You probably already know that how you eat before bed affects your sleep. Maybe you’ve found yourself still lying awake at 2 a.m. after enjoying a cup of coffee with dessert. But did you know that your eating choices throughout the day may also affect your sleep at night? In fact, more and more evidence […]

Read More about What’s the Best Diet for Healthy Sleep? A Nutritional Epidemiologist Explains What Food Choices Will Help You Get More Restful Z’s

5 min read

Does an Apple a Day Really Keep the Doctor Away? A Nutritionist Explains the Science Behind ‘Functional’ Foods
By Janet Colson Diet and Nutrition News & Advice

Does an Apple a Day Really Keep the Doctor Away? A Nutritionist Explains the Science Behind ‘Functional’ Foods

We’ve all heard that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but how true is that? Apples are not high in vitamin A, nor are they beneficial for vision like carrots. They are not a great source of vitamin C and therefore don’t fight off colds as oranges do. However, apples contain various bioactive […]

Read More about Does an Apple a Day Really Keep the Doctor Away? A Nutritionist Explains the Science Behind ‘Functional’ Foods

6 min read