The Power of Positivity: Fostering Exercise Self-Efficacy in Senior Adults

While we personal trainers enjoy working with motivated clients, we must also acknowledge that there is an untapped market of individuals who would like to be working with us, but fail to have enough confidence in their own abilities. It is incumbent upon us, then, to find ways to positively influence these clients and instill in them a sense of self-efficacy.

As personal trainers with full client loads, we are very accustomed to individuals with high levels of motivation when it comes to exercise. We are accustomed to clients who seek us out for our level of expertise, and willingly arrive at the gym once or twice each and every week, full of energy and ready to undertake whatever challenges we have prepared for them. But the above description doesn’t apply to everyone, particularly those with a comparatively lowered sense of self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is defined as an individual’s beliefs regarding his or her capabilities to produce designated levels of performance. Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave. A strong sense of self-efficacy can actually enhance human accomplishment and personal well-being. Those individuals who possess a high level of assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered. This belief system tends to foster a deep commitment to activities, including physical exercise. Such individuals set challenging goals for themselves, and tend to maintain a strong commitment to them. Such an outlook leads to improvements in personal accomplishments, and can actually lower one’s vulnerability to depression.

Senior adults particularly fall prey to a lowered sense of self-efficacy. Often illness or issues relating to aging in general leave our older population in a weakened physical state. While these physical barriers can usually be overcome through appropriate levels of activity, there is often reluctance on the part of these individuals to venture out of their comfort zone in terms of new aspects of movement. Fear of failure feeds into this, and soon self-efficacy is virtually non-existent. Sadly, more than 60% of American adults do not get enough physical activity to provide health benefits, and more than 25% are not active at all in their leisure time. How can we as fitness professionals reach out to these individuals and change their perception of self into a more positive one, thereby fostering adherence to a healthy exercise regimen?

Several popular strategies exist to help improve levels of self-efficacy in senior adults:

Vicarious Experience: This is a “modeling” paradigm whereby exercisers observe others successfully performing an exercise. Modeling is extremely important for deconditioned senior adults—they need to see others their age or ability level performing an exercise task properly and successfully without injury. This is generally the first step toward improving one’s level of self-efficacy.

Performance Mastery: This technique involves the “hands on” process of learning through personal experience and participation. Proper instruction followed by guided practice seems to be the most effective with this age group. Repeated successes will in time lead to increased self-efficacy.

Verbal Persuasion: This last phase relates to compliments on form and encouragement for accepting new challenges. Positive verbal reinforcement works best to boost self- efficacy when it occurs immediately after the accomplishment has been executed, and is very specific to the task at hand.

As a Group Exercise instructor for senior adults, it has been my experience over the past 23 years that this arena seems to work wonders for increasing self-efficacy. Many older adults don’t exercise for “fitness”, but rather come to the gym as a means of socializing with friends. When exercise is equated with fun, such as my participants have come to expect from my classes, adherence becomes greater; and with adherence comes the confidence in one’s abilities that lies at the very core of self-efficacy.

According to Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, studies have indicated that exercise actually brings about neurogenesis as nerve fibers increase within the hippocampus region of the brain. This is a similar effect to what one observes with the use of antidepressant medications. Physical activity also has an effect on brain function itself, including improvement in levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. When this is coupled with the sense of self-efficacy that succeeding in an exercise program can produce, the dramatic improvement in one’s mood is even further enhanced. The resulting feeling of accomplishment will carry an individual much longer, ideally resulting in a desire to adhere to one’s chosen physical activity.

The mind is a very powerful tool. One of my favorite quotes seems to perfectly sum up the premise we are discussing here: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.” Believing in oneself can make all the difference in whatever endeavor one is undertaking, from a challenging exam at school to executing a heavy lift in the gym, and even to mastering a sequence in an aerobics class. Repeated successes will build a healthy and vigorous belief in one’s capabilities. These successes then become the building blocks for the development of a strong sense of self-efficacy. It is therefore our job to focus on building a strong mind as well as a healthy body for each of our clients.


1. Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).

2. United States Centers for Disease Control

3. McAuley, E. and Blissmer, B. (2000). Self-efficacy determinants and consequences of physical activity. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. 28:4, 85-88.

4. “High-Performance Health” ©2007

5. McAuley et al, Self-regulatory processes and exercise adherence in older adults executive function and self-efficacy effects. Am J Prev Med. 2011 Sep;41(3):284-90.


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.
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