The topic of frequent physical activity and, more importantly, a sedentary lifestyle dominate the media on a near-daily basis. Although many people feel they undertake enough physical activity to reap the subsequent health benefits, The British Heart Foundation (2012) discovered that less than 10% of men and women could correctly report the government’s guideline recommendations for weekly exercise. The lack of awareness and willing to engage in exercise presents in itself a collective health problem; individuals begin to suffer with ailments whilst the NHS counts the financial cost of treating those who are inactive with costs being estimated at up to £1.06 billion (Allender et al, 2007). The relationship between exercise and personal well-being is well established where research has shown that regular physical activity can lead to a plethora of health benefits (Coombes et al, 2013). In this respect, it is vital that professionals begin to identify ways in which people can be successfully engage in physical activity and maintain this in the long-term. Research thus far has mainly focused on mobilising effort toward the uptake of exercise yet very few studies have attempted to engineer interventions to sustain these efforts (Naar-King et al, 2013). Identifying individual indicators of persistence when exercising would enable greater understanding and potentially inform interventions when dealing with inactive people in society.
Mental toughness is a term that is used by many people who are involved in sport: coaches, athletes and the media. Despite the fact that mental toughness has been used as a reason for a good performance by coaches and players alike, it has only recently been conceptualised. It can be defined as: ““having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the manydemands (e.g., competition, training, lifestyle) that are placed on you as a performer” (Jones, Hanton & Connaughton, 2007). The importance of mental toughness in sport has been revealed on multiple occasions; it possesses links with other psychological skills such as coping (Nicholls, Levy, Polman & Crust, 2011). Issues with the actual definition of mental toughness appear to have been resolved where four clear components are believed to constitute mental toughness within which reside 30 more sub components: attitude, training, competition and post-competition (Jones et al, 2007). Obviously, these four elements may not transfer as appropriately to the exercise domain. Mental toughness has been found to be one of the central characteristics held by an elite athlete and a major contributor to performers reaching the pinnacle of their sport. Drawing from this, professionals have begun to consider the effectiveness of mental toughness in an exercise setting. It could be suggested that dealing with issues, coping effectively and persisting through adversity are all necessary when sustaining regular physical activity. Therefore, what can we gain from our understanding from mental toughness, and how, if it at all, can it be applied in the exercise setting?
One particular research study, has endeavoured to reveal more on the role of mental toughness in exercise and how it can be defined. Through the use of extensive interviews with frequent exercisers and qualified exercise leaders, a more concise image on exercise mental toughness (EMT) can be formulated (Crust et al, 2014). Firstly, it was noted by the participants that exercisers who appeared mentally tough were incredibly intense in their physical output and persistence; they have a motivation to achieve. Further to this, it appeared that the mentally tough exerciser had clear purpose and goal to strive toward. Having a long-term goal imparted a sense of meaning to the individual and allowed them to persist through particularly hard sessions. Taking this forward, health professionals should seek to establish clear goals with sedentary individuals. Proactive individuals could begin to consider what their ultimate goal is when beginning exercise and noting it down. This could help their motivation to achieve. Doing so could improve their mental toughness and, ultimately, their commitment to an exercise program.
Moreover, the participants believed that becoming mentally tough when exercising involved adopting a very strong sense of focus. This focus could also be perceived as a form of selfishness and it was argued that this is not necessarily a negative quality to display whilst exercising. Importantly, if the exerciser experienced a setback, they experienced a ‘rapid refocus’ onto the next goal/task. Similar to dealing with adversity in sport, it could be argued that this a difficult quality to develop in an individual. However, professionals in the exercise setting could attempt to educate individuals on how to overcome setbacks when working toward a goal. In any case, some level of failure is necessary for growth. Informing those who are inactive of this could serve to change perceptions of exercise and thus increase participation. Commitment is also stipulated to be typical of possessing EMT. The prioritisation of exercise appears imperative to sustaining engagement with activity. Although efforts have been made through various government campaigns, it may be that a different perspective is adopted when promoting physical activity. Ensuring that inactive individuals are aware of the health benefits they can reap through exercise could be a potential method to improving EMT and, in turn, subsequent adherence to regular exercise.
Although a lot can be gathered from this relatively new domain in the exercise research field, further research is required into the concept of mental toughness in exercise. Clarifying the role it may have in exercise maintenance could explore new avenues in promoting exercise adoption. In doing this, it could relieve pressure on the health industry and improve well-being across populations.