Why Do People Quit an Exercise Program? Here’s Why.

Many believe that stress management is the foundation to a life well lived, or a life wasted. Many believe stress is immediately tied to illness, and how our body handles different circumstances. Stress is generally perceived as bad.

However, not all stress is bad. Dr. Richard Lazarus and Dr. Hans Selye suggested that there is a difference between eustress (positive stress) and distress (negative stress). Which form are we are creating in our clients? If we want to create long lasting behavior change in our clients, we must ensure their programming is creating positive stress on the body, not negative stress experiences.

According to a report provided by Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D., distress and eustress tends to exhibit the following characteristics:

Eustress Distress
Motivates, focuses our
Causes anxiety or concern
Is short-term Can be short-term or long-term
Is perceived within our
coping abilities
Is perceived outside of our coping
Feels exciting Feels unpleasant
Improves performance Decreases performance
  Can lead to mental and physical problems

Researchers have identified that it can be difficult to classify situations as positive or negative stress because people respond very differently to the same situation. Most can agree that the death of a family member would be classified under distress while taking a vacation is generally classified under eustress. However, being in a traffic jam may be a source of distress for someone running late or having a bad day, but fine for the person who is in no rush.

Those who faithfully exercise do not see exercise as a form of distress, but a form of eustress. For us exercise enthusiasts, the eustress has almost been compared to a state of euphoria, or where we feel happiest. It’s no wonder we fitness enthusiasts have no problem sticking to an exercise regimen and often even go into these professions of fitness as a career choice. Many fit pros are doing burpees in their basement for fun. It is important for us as fitness professionals to recognize that many clients are not necessarily fitness enthusiasts, especially if they are just beginning an exercise program. These individuals may see exercise as a form of distress, or at the least, be questioning its merit before even getting started. Exercise may be viewed as a daunting task on a person’s to do list. Exercise is rarely seen as medicine for a busy stressful life, and often as punishment for a body shape you’d prefer to change or eating habits gone overboard. This fact alone sets up exercise as a distressing situation for the individual aiming for habit change.

This sets us up for failure if fitness is viewed as something our participants must do, not something they want to do. Research has indicated that a person’s attitudes, beliefs and even group norms (who they hang with) all influence adherence to a lifestyle change, whether it be a new medication regimen, exercise program, or ceasing a destructive habit. There are various cognitive and behavioral models that demonstrate that intention to adhere is essential to following the program itself. Intentions, however, depend upon what people think and believe, what attitudes they hold, and how other people influence them

There are two components or stages of training that should help us as trainers identify our clients thoughts and feelings toward the fitness program:

  1. The beginning stage of a program (or the stage of readiness)
  2. The ABC of the exercise program itself

Assessing where a client is at the beginning of a program can be determined by the Transtheoretical Model of Change (Prochaska and DiClemente 1984). This model can also be used throughout, to identify a client along the continuum of change (see an excellent article by Alex Link about the TMOC here).

However, one often overlooked but equally appropriate task of programming is step 2: ongoing assessment of the client’s feelings, attitudes and beliefs of the program as it progresses. This is not simply the model of change. It is how the client is feeling about the program itself, which may in turn influence where they are within the model of change. It is evaluating if the exercise is promoting a state of eustress or distress. Does the client feel energized and motivated to complete their exercise? In contrast, are they avoidant of it or feeling like it is outside their capabilities? Is it something they look forward to? As fitness enthusiasts, we believe there is an exercise for everyone that creates eustress and is an exercise that client will want to do. The key is finding it, and this takes some serious digging.

How is the exercise program making your client feel?
Image by Pixaline from Pixabay

This “cognitive appraisal” is a client’s assessment of the program, self-talk of their performance and appraisal of their capabilities. How they think directly determines how much they “like” or “dislike” exercise variations and programs they have tried. Put in simpler terms: our thoughts determine our mood, and our mood determines our actions.

According to Dr. Albert Ellis, the relationship between thoughts and emotion can be represented by the simple equation A+B=C.

  • A= “Activating Event.”  Physical activity (in our case, exercise program, class, etc.)
  • B= “Beliefs.” Our belief system about the validity of the program, if it worked, etc
  • C= “Consequences.” How we felt about that experience largely determines our desire to cease or continue. Our beliefs and our self-talk largely determine the consequences.

Maybe your participant began the process of lifestyle change but did not adhere. This begs the question: when does eustress become distress? When the exercises performed are not in line with the body, mind, or health of the participant undertaking them. Because we are all so highly individualistic, every program does and should look different in its design. The success of a trainer is directly related to the empathy and understanding that trainer can have for his/her client, and knowing whether your participants are in eustress or distress is key to exercise adherence and developing a successful program. This is much easier said than done. However, as trainers we need to become more adept to listening, learning and adhering a program to tailor to an individual’s interests, needs and capabilities. This is absolutely paramount to the success of any fitness program. This is the distinct difference between a person seeing exercise programming and “getting their workout in” as eustress or distress.

Eustress = lifelong change            Distress=lack of adherence

I propose that although there are many factors why exercise adherence is such a challenge, one of these reasons is this understanding and empathy of our clients. Knowing whether they are in eustress versus distress is key to this. Note this is not necessarily tied solely to how “hard” a program is, but how much the participant enjoys what he/she is doing and sees it as worthwhile.


Link, A. (2019, March 7). How to Use the Transtheoretical Model of Change to Help Clients Make Healthy Behavioral Changes. [Web blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.acefitness.org/fitness-certifications/ace-answers/exam-preparation-blog/3171/how-to-use-the-transtheoretical-model-to-help-clients-make-healthy-behavioral-changes.

Martin LR, Williams SL, Haskard KB, Dimatteo MR. The challenge of patient adherence. Ther Clin Risk Manag. 2005;1(3):189–199.

Mills, H.Reiss, N., Dombeck, M. n.d. Factors Determining Whether Stressors are Experienced as Negative or Positive. [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.seabhs.org/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=15645&cn=117.

Mills, H.Reiss, N., Dombeck, M. (Updated 2015, Dec. 15). Types Of Stressors (Eustress VsDistress[Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.seabhs.org/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=15644.