exercise and self image

Can You Change How You See Yourself?


We all know that regular physical activity is good for us, both in the here-and-now, and in the long-run.  If we all know that, then why do so few of us actually do it?   One thing we know is we all have our own definitions of ourselves, and the area of psychology known as “schema theory” has been applied to exercise.  A schema is a set of beliefs and assumptions we have about how things in the world are defined or operate.  We all have sets of schemas for much of what we know about in the world, and in particular, ourselves.  For example, a selfschema may include concepts like honest, funny, smart, faithful, loyal, adventurous, etc.  Health promotion researchers have delved into a concept termed “exercise self-schema” to see how much of a role it plays in the identities of people who regularly exercise and those who don’t.

What this boils down to is if you can keep yourself going for about three months, you are more likely to develop the schema that will help you stick with it.

exercise self-image


Kendzierski (1988) identified three distinct ways people view themselves:

Exerciser self-schema (an exerciser is part of who I am)

Non-Exerciser (I am someone who never exercises)

Aschematic for exercise (it doesn’t apply to me one way or the other)  

Does this mean that we are beholden to our self-definitions?  Can we change how we see ourselves?

Researchers at the University of North Texas (2002) wanted to know if it was possible to change.  By recruiting 121 people who were just starting an exercise routine, giving them a series of surveys and again at three and six months, they could track what happened with self-schemas.   Subjects who entered the study either reported they were exercising, but not regularly, or regularly (according to the American College of Sports Medicine’s guidelines) for less than six months.  Scores on their survey responses categorized them as having:  1) “exerciser schema”  or 2) “no exerciser schema”.  Those with results labeling them as  “non-exerciser” and “aschematic” from survey results were grouped together, for a basic yes/no classification at follow-up.

At the three-month follow-up, 70 subjects responded.  Regarding regular activity, 60% of subjects (42 of the 70) had been classified as “successful” in continuing.  How did they view themselves?

Exerciser schema vs. “no exerciser” schema

Those who had an “exerciser” schema when they first entered the study turned out to be no more likely to be “successful” than those who started with “no exerciser schema”.  In fact, 62% of people who didn’t see themselves as exercisers at first managed to continue the routine for three months (pretty impressive, when you think about it!).  So it doesn’t have to be there to get yourself going!

At the three-month mark, the way they saw themselves looked different. Remember, only 38% who were still exercising at three months started with an exerciser self-schema.  After three months, that number increased to more than half who considered themselves “exercisers”, and this was statistically significant (p<.001 for you statistics folks).  This means that sometime during those three months, 9 of the 42 successful maintainers developed an exerciser self-schema.   Interestingly, of those who still didn’t have an exerciser self-schema, 19 of them were “successful” despite not considering it part of the self (so you still don’t have to identify with it to keep it up!).  

But did it last? 

Still exercising

At six months, 53 subjects completed their final follow-up.  Of those, 28 people (53%) were still exercising. 

What happened to their self-schemas?  Of the 28 who stuck with exercising, 83% had internalized “exerciser” as part of the self.  Even though the remainder still didn’t identify with it, they were successful anyway.  Of those who stopped or lost traction in their routine 72% didn’t have it as part of the self-schema.  The difference between successful and unsuccessful  was also statistically significant (p<.001 again!), with exercise behavior being related to having an exerciser self-schema.  This means that regular exercisers generally see themselves differently than non-exercisers.    

What do we make of all this?  Since we saw an increase in “exercisers” from start to three-month follow-up, we know a change in self-schema happened somewhere in there.  At six months, it was about the same, so that change must be happening within the first three months of being active.

What’s the Take-Home?

What this boils down to is if you can keep yourself going for about three months, you are more likely to develop the schema that will help you stick with it.

Does this mean you have to consider it part of yourself to become an active individual overall?  No, it doesn’t, necessarily.  You are more likely to be one if you do, but there are still people out there who manage to keep going without having it as part of the self-concept.  Those people are just plain capable of more than they think.

So, for all you non-exercisers out there, there is hope! Get moving – and you might not only feel better from it, but you might start seeing yourself differently!


Kendzierski, Deborah (1988). Self-schemata and exercise. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 9(1), 45-59.