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Paddy Ekkekakis, Health and Human Performance, (515) 294-8766
Bridget Bailey, News Service, (515) 294-6881


AMES, Iowa -- An average of 50 percent of those who start an exercise program drop out within the first six months, according to Paddy Ekkekakis, assistant professor of health and human performance at Iowa State University. He's studying a method to determine how much exercise is too much for one's mind and body--why some people get a runner's high and others want to quit for good after an intense workout.

" Most people who lack exercise experience are unable to accurately monitor and regulate the intensity of their exercise efforts," Ekkekakis said. "Consequently, some overestimate the intensity of their physical activity and, thus, choose intensities that are unlikely to confer rapid, visible benefits. Others underestimate the intensity of exercise, overexert themselves, and experience feelings of displeasure or injuries." Ekkekakis added that this behavior, referred to as the "revolving door phenomenon," is believed to be responsible for the rising level of sedentary individuals and increased rates of obesity.

Ekkekakis said both problems might lead to exercise dropout since people generally tend to do what makes them feel good and avoid what makes them feel bad. He is developing a new method for improving the self-monitoring and self-regulation of exercise intensity. Proper self-monitoring of exercise intensity can optimize health and fitness benefits for previously sedentary individuals and can also ensure pleasant exercise experiences and a willingness to remain physically active, he said.

"The long-term aim of this research is to develop new methods for prescribing exercise that take into account not only the maximization of fitness and health benefits, but also enjoyment and the potential for continued exercise involvement over the long haul," Ekkekakis said. "Anyone who has been sedentary for a long period of time and then starts an activity program knows that exercise can lead to feelings of exertion and discomfort during the first weeks," Ekkekakis said. "The challenge is to deal with these unpleasant feelings and persevere by not dropping out."

Feelings of pleasure or displeasure during exercise are mainly influenced by two factors, Ekkekakis said. One factor consists of patterns of thinking, such as perceptions of physical ability or worry over physical appearance. The other factor is the perception of exercise-related physiological activity, such as muscular or respiratory sensations. He said the influence of the thought-related factors is dominant at light and moderate intensities, but the influence of muscular or respiratory cues becomes greater as the individual approaches his or her exercise limit.

Ekkekakis uses a variety of self-report questionnaires to study how exercise contributes to feelings of pleasure or displeasure in people of all ages and levels of fitness. He developed a model called the circumplex to categorize the feelings experienced during exercise into four broad areas. These areas are: pleasant high activation (excitement, energy), pleasant low activation (calmness, relaxation), unpleasant low activation (boredom, fatigue), and unpleasant high activation (tension, distress).

Participants in Ekkekakis' study exercise on a heart rate-controlled treadmill. Directly in front of the treadmill, there is a touch-screen monitor that allows them to respond to self-report questionnaire on-screen as they exercise.

During the workout, Ekkekakis can measure a participant's metabolic rate, muscle activity, and brain waves. Ekkekakis said affective responses to exercise are influenced by cognitive factors, such as physical ability, and by systems such as the muscular or respiratory systems. He said cognitive factors are dominant at low intensities and muscular or respiratory cues become greater as the individual approaches his or her exercise limit. Because people have more direct control over their thinking than over their physiological activity, this means that one can change how he or she feels during exercise by changing what he or she is thinking only at light and moderate exercise intensities.

Ekkekakis said novice exercisers might have heard that they should use one of the following techniques in order to cope with the feelings of exertion and discomfort.
  1. Try not to think about it. Try to turn your attention to something else. Listen to music, focus on the environment.
  2. Think of these feelings as something positive. It means that your body is getting stronger.
  3. Tell yourself that you can do this.
  4. Learn to recognize the intensity of exercise that makes you feel bad and don't allow negative feelings to emerge. If you need to slow down, then slow down. If you need to take a break, then take a break.
"In actuality, it is not known whether and to what extent these techniques help people derive more pleasant experiences or continue to exercise over the long haul," Ekkekakis said. "What our past research suggests, and what we hope that our future research will show, is that technique number four may be more effective, particularly with previously sedentary exercise participants."

"Since one can change how he or she feels during exercise by changing one's thoughts only at low or moderate intensities, the novice and out-of-shape exerciser may find the first three techniques ineffective," Ekkekakis said. "If one insists on these techniques, the outcome might be frustration, unmanageable negative feelings, and possibly early dropout."

The take-home message is that "exercise intensity" is always relative to one's maximum exercise capacity, according to Ekkekakis.

"What happens as we age, while remaining physically inactive, and/or increasing our body weight, is that our capacity for exercise is reduced, sometimes quite dramatically, Ekkekakis said."


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