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Revealed: The Secret To Staying Fit For Life

Les Mills Athlete

A pilot study from the Les Mills Research Lab has offered up clues into the drivers of exercise motivation and what it takes to transform someone from couch potato to gym bunny.

A team of researchers have cracked the code to exercise motivation – pinpointing ‘automaticity’ as the secret to staying fit for life.

Exercise science experts at the Les Mills Research Lab have identified the trait of automaticity – turning exercise into a habit you do frequently without even thinking about it, like brushing your teeth or saying Please and Thank You – as the key differentiator between active and inactive people.

Their research found 100% of active people strongly agreed that exercise is an automatic aspect of their lives, whereas 92% of inactive people disagreed.

The researchers also explored which behaviors and conditions help to instill automaticity, crucially finding that all of these behaviors can be learned with the right approach and support.

The pilot study examined two groups – one comprising regular exercisers (at least 150 minutes per week for the past 10 years or more), the other comprising people who rarely exercise.

As well as finding substantial differences in the two groups’ approaches to exercise and perceptions of its benefits, the study identified stark contrasts in their wider wellbeing.

Over three quarters (77%) of the active group strongly agreed that they’re satisfied with their life (in terms of career, relationships, quality of life, financial prospects and self-esteem), compared to just 23% of the inactive group.

Meanwhile, 62% of the inactive group felt they lacked control in their daily life (regularly feeling nervous, stressed and angry or upset about things outside of their control), versus only 38% of the active group.

Outlook on exercise

Unsurprisingly, the active group were more motivated by the physical, mental and self-esteem benefits brought by exercise compared to the inactive group, but the biggest difference was in perceptions of the social benefits. 84% of the active group are motivated by the social aspects of exercise (exercise as a source of entertainment, fun, and means of seeing friends), versus just 48% of the inactive group.

And 92% of the active group said they always experience positive feelings from exercise (such as enjoyment, feeling energized and accomplished), compared to just 23% of the inactive group.

Blockers and enablers

The active group were more likely to track their exercise and set goals, but the most notable differences were how the active group focused on the health benefits of exercise (82% vs 45% of the inactive group); scheduled specific times for exercise (77% vs 36%); and planned ways to ensure they exercise regardless of conditions (84% vs 38%).

77% of the active group preferred incorporating challenges into their exercise (such as pushing through exhaustion, muscle soreness, and upping the intensity), while 70% of the inactive group said they don’t enjoy challenges.

Lack of motivation, time, and facilities were all seen as bigger barriers to exercise by the inactive group than the active group, but the clearest contrasts were lack of social support (reported by 51% of the inactive group, versus just 8% of the active group); lack of interest in exercising (66% vs 15%); and feeling self-conscious (49% vs 8%).

Dr. Jinger Gottschall, Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Colorado and Lead Researcher for the study said: “Most people understand that exercise is good for them and a cornerstone of good health, but far fewer of us are able to put this into practice and lead a consistently active lifestyle.

“Our research finds that automaticity represents the key to long-term exercise adherence and is a key differentiator between active and inactive people.

“And the good news is that we’ve identified several practical steps that people can take to embed regular exercise as a full-fledged habit. Focusing on activities you find enjoyable, managing intensity levels in the early stages and adding social elements to your exercise are all great ways to get in the groove.

Bryce Hastings, Les Mills Head of Research and co-author of the study, added: “What our research shows is that there are substantial differences between seasoned exercisers and complete beginners in how they perceive physical activity and the effect it has on them.

“For people looking to start exercising more regularly, there are numerous tactics that they use to ease themselves in and overcome some of the initial barriers that hold people back.

“Making use of digital fitness options at home to mitigate feelings of self-consciousness, develop technique and find the things you enjoy most can be a great way to dip your toe in the water without having to dive in at the deep end and start live classes straight away.

“Seeking workouts that allow for autonomy and independence with respect to challenge and complexity will provide the necessary flexibility to find your level and continually progress while adding social elements to your sessions by training with a friend is another great way to reinforce the habit.”

Les Mills has harnessed these scientific findings to create a fun series of free workout videos aimed at helping people take the initial steps on their own fitness journey and set themselves up for long-term success. GET STARTED TODAY


The pilot study examined two groups – one comprising regular exercisers (at least 150 minutes per week for the past 10 years or more), the other comprising people who rarely exercise.

Each group contained 47 people aged 29-68, with an average age of 45 and a 60:40 female to male split.