Are you one of those people who abhors exercise, or do you love to work out? The way you non-consciously evaluate exercise cues may be a key factor in whether you actually exercise.

New research from Griffith University has added to growing evidence that some individuals may display a non-conscious or implicit bias towards physical activity.

This behaviour towards exercise can be motivated by a range of impulsive processes operating outside conscious awareness.

For example, when someone sees exercise equipment, do they feel compelled to approach or move away from it?

Researchers from Griffith’s School of Applied Psychology, led by Thomas Hannan, asked 104 healthy adults about their exercise intentions, motivation and levels of exercise, and then tested their inclination towards exercise cues using a psychological test.

They found that overall, participants were more likely to approach than avoid exercise-related cues, and individuals who did more exercise displayed a significantly stronger approach bias than less-active individuals.

Thomas Hannan, Griffith University School of Applied Psychology.”We found even when taking conscious or explicit motivational factors into account, the study highlighted the important role of non-conscious motivational forces,” Mr Hannan says.

“These findings suggest that increased engagement in leisure-time exercise is associated with an implicit cognitive bias to approach exercise-related cues in the environment.”

The study, published in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, tested a psychological theory called the reflective-impulsive model (RIM).

According to RIM, people can be motivated by the reflective system or the impulsive system.

The reflective system is responsible for controlled processes that motivate behaviour in a relatively slow, careful and deliberate way.

The impulsive system is responsible for automatic processes that motivate behaviour spontaneously through the activation of implicit memory associations, which an individual acquires over time.

“For example, a person who regularly enjoys exercise may form an associative network or cluster for exercise in which exercise is associated with concepts of ‘fun’ or ‘enjoyment’,” Mr Hannan explained

Once formed, these implicit associations can be easily triggered by environmental cues and impulsively motivate exercise behaviour independently of controlled motivational processes.

The results also revealed that high exercisers displayed stronger exercise-approach versus exercise-avoid memory associations than low exercisers.

“So, next time you do some exercise, make sure it is fun and enjoyable, and your brain will start building associative networks that may automatically help you keep up your healthy habits long-term,” Mr Hannan said.