As I studied to become a personal trainer, one of the concepts that I learned about was self-efficacy in exercise. Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of completing a task–in this case, exercising. The reason why it is important is that when we believe that we can exercise–in spite of impediments such as a busy schedule, being tired, feeling intimidated at the gym, etc.–we are more likely to actually carry out the physical activity. It sounds somewhat self-evident, but the issue is a little bit complicated.
It is not unusual for me when I am working with clients to hear them say something like, “Oh, I can’t do that,” or “I have never been able to do that before.” It is up to me to safely push them out of their comfort zones. Once they realize that they are capable of doing what I am directing, it builds up their confidence. Later on, I can refer to that success when confronting a new or challenging exercise; I may say, “Remember how you thought you could not balance on one foot for 10 seconds and you could? I bet you are also capable of doing reverse lunges that also involve an element of balance.” Each success builds on the other creating higher levels of self-efficacy.
The concept of self-efficacy goes beyond just exercise, and is particularly important for older adults. The scope widens to include a belief that we are able to influence the events in our lives. As we age, we often sense that we are losing control as our bodies do not function as they once did, and cognition declines. The greater our self-efficacy, the more likely we are to engage in the kinds of activities and practices that will help us to live longer and better. In other words, if we experience greater challenges carrying out activities of daily living, we may reach the conclusion that life will just be a long decline, so there is no reason to “bother” doing anything to improve our levels of health and fitness; on the other hand, if we feel like we can influence our health and fitness, we will act upon that. In both cases, it can create a self-fulfilling prophesy. This is why self-efficacy is so important for older adults.
How to start? Sometimes we have long-standing feelings of inadequacy; confronting those beliefs is difficult and may require help from a mental health professional. If, in general, we do feel adequate (or even proficient) in life, it becomes a matter of continually challenging ourselves to do more. This is why many older adults are attracted to fitness classes or personal trainers where clear directions are given with appropriate progression from easier tasks to more difficult ones. It lessens the likelihood that we will go easy on ourselves or convince ourselves that we simply are not capable.
As I have grown older, I have come to realize that there are certain things that I may longer be able to do. At the same time, there are other activities where I have doubted my ability and come through with flying colors. I would not say that it is all in our heads, but belief in our ability to influence the direction of our lives can have deep and long-lasting positive outcomes.