Active Voice: Sports Can Teach Us about Physical Activity Behavior: Skills Every Person Can Use
By Heather Chambliss, Ph.D., FACSM

Heather Chambliss, Ph.D., FACSM, is a Health Promotion faculty member in the department of Health and Sport Sciences at the University of Memphis. She is an Exercise is Medicine® advisory board member, an ACSM Health & Fitness Summit & Exhibition Program Committee member and chair of ACSM's Behavioral Strategies Committee. Her areas of interest include physical activity promotion and health behavior change. Dr. Chambliss’ commentary was adapted from her recent presentation on a related topic at the 2011 ACSM Health & Fitness Summit & Exhibition in Anaheim, California.

As fitness and health professionals, we recognize that the successful translation of exercise prescription is long-term behavior change. Ultimately, the integration of behavior change skills is necessary for the maintenance of physical activity and fitness. Yet, facilitating behavior change is a challenge.

Behavior change is often approached from a "toolbox" perspective. In that toolbox are specific behavioral skills, including self-monitoring, goal setting, building social support, committing yourself, relapse prevention and enhancing motivation. This behavioral toolbox allows flexibility to tailor skills to individual needs and fitness goals. Despite this flexibility, it is often difficult to convey these skills to clients and patients in a fresh and meaningful way.

In a recent online undergraduate health and wellness class, I posed the following discussion board question: do athletes have it easy when it comes to physical activity? The discussion board lit up with students on both sides of the argument. However, one common theme emerged—athletes have a behavioral support system that promotes success.

In our field, the focus is typically on an athlete's performance and physiological characteristics. However, perhaps just as important, is what we can learn from athletes' behavioral strategies that enable them to achieve their fitness goals.

What are the behavioral strategies successful athletes use that can be readily applied to the average exerciser?

1. Find your passion and best fit. Athletes select sports based on their natural gifts and learned skills, and they persist in sports they enjoy.

2. Get a team and find a coach. Teammates and coaches are tremendous sources of social support, and they provide feedback and motivation inherent to success.

3. Set goals and keep score. The sports environment provides a natural setting for concrete goal-setting—with a plan for achieving those goals—and self-monitoring by keeping score in both practice and performance. Many individuals may also be motivated by a competitive goal, such as an incentivized fitness challenge, recreational sport or training goal, such as a 5K run.

4. View “practice” as an obligation. Athletes cannot skip practice if they don't feel like it or if something comes up. Commitment is key.

5. Make fitness part of your identity. When athletes define themselves by their sport, it communicates intrinsic motivation and priorities which have emerged from a personal value system. Ultimately, it is a new self-identity as an active person that marks the successful transition to long-term maintenance.

To quote one of my students at the University of Memphis:
I see a lot of responses from athletes in this class saying they don't have it easy, but I am going to disagree. In my opinion, they have it easy in that they are probably playing a sport because they love it, and they are probably going to be healthier than your average person because they do have to stick to the rigorous schedule demanded of them, and they have to meet certain expectations regardless of whether or not they feel like doing it. That is an advantage in my opinion because I think the hardest part about living a healthy lifestyle for most people is the choice involved.

Health and fitness professionals function as coaches, with the responsibility of providing both training expertise and motivational support. We can help the everyday person find their inner athlete by applying behavioral strategies that are inherent to the sport environment and readily translate to the achievement of all health and fitness goals.