How to Increase Self-Efficacy in Exercise

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll be exploring the concept of self-efficacy and how it relates to exercise. Through this lesson, you'll learn how to implement strategies to improve students' self-efficacy around exercise and promote student achievement.

What Is Self-Efficacy?

Lately it's hard to find time to go to the gym, even though you used to run track in high school and college. However, you want to get back to it, so you make a resolution to visit the gym at least three days per week. You feel confident in keeping up with this habit because you've done it so much before. This belief that you can succeed to accomplish your goals is called self-efficacy.

Self-Efficacy in Exercise

Although people who have committed to an active lifestyle have high self-efficacy in exercise, many people do not share these feelings. The gym is intimidating and they might feel scared of being unsuccessful. This can be especially true for students who are still developing their sense of self.

Yet, we all know that exercise is very important. It not only improves our physical health, it also improves our socioemotional health. Exercise also has cognitive benefits, with students who exercise more improving their academic skills more than those who do not.

Having self-efficacy in a skill makes us more likely to engage in that skill. The more we believe we can do something, the more likely we are to work hard at it, and in turn be successful. Today, we're going to look at some strategies to help improve self-efficacy in students around exercise.


Although the ability and willingness to exercise might seem simply ingrained in some people, there are strategies to help improve self-efficacy in even the most resistant students.


Picture starting a new exercise program with your students. One student, Janna, has been evaluated by a doctor who suggests that she start eating more healthily and exercising more. Janna starts a program in the gym with you and insists that she wants to run five miles even though currently she doesn't run at all. However, at the end of the week, Janna has only managed to run one mile at a time. Janna says she wants to quit and feels like she'll never meet her goals. Setting an unrealistic goal in her first week of an exercise program set Janna up for failure. This is a common problem in both adults and teens.

One solution to this challenge is to clearly outline SMART goals, ones that are Specific, Measurable, Agreed upon, Realistic, and Time-related. Since goals should be specific, what activity are you trying to get better at? Can you measure the goal? Getting healthier is vague, whereas running one mile per week is very clear. Realistic goals are ones that can physically be accomplished. If you can't run well now, a five mile run isn't very realistic. Lastly, there should be a time constraint. Setting smaller, weekly goals can keep students on track so they see consistent progress.

Setting SMART goals can help improve self-efficacy in exercise

Gather Data

Long term goals can be hard to keep track of, especially if progress is slow. Exercise programs and physical fitness don't always follow a linear trajectory. Some days you're bound to feel stronger or weaker depending on your mood and physical health. Imagine a student named Havril. He is trying to get stronger and build muscle. Today he failed his math test and is coming down with a cold. Last week he could deadlift 100 pounds, but today, he only got 90. He feels like a failure and his self-efficacy decreases.

This is where keeping track of data comes in. As a teacher and coach for Havril, you keep track of his progress on target lifts each week. Although this week he was a little weaker, his overall progress has been steady, increasing from 60 pounds up to 100 over the past three weeks. You remind Havril of this and boost his confidence. With improved self-esteem he can understand that while he had a poor day, and he can try again. This boosts his self-efficacy and makes him more likely to continue his exercise program.

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