Effect of retraining approach-avoidance tendencies on an exercise task: a randomized controlled trial


  • B. Cheval
  • P. Sarrazin
  • L. Pelletier
  • M. Friese


Background: Promoting regular physical activity (PA) and lessening sedentary behaviors (SB) constitute a public health priority. Recent evidence suggests that PA and SB are not only related to reflective processes (e.g., behavioral intentions), but also to impulsive approach-avoidance tendencies (IAAT). This study aims to test the effect of a computerized IAAT intervention on an exercise task. Methods: Participants (N = 115) were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions, in which they were either trained to approach PA and avoid SB (ApPA-AvSB condition), to approach SB and avoid PA (ApSB-AvPA condition), or to approach and avoid PA and SB equally often (active control condition). The main outcome variable was the time spent carrying out a moderate intensity exercise task. Findings: IAAT towards PA decreased in the ApSB-AvPA condition (p=.042), tended to increase in the ApPA-AvSB condition (p=.084), and remained stable in the control condition (p=.815). Most importantly, the ApPA-AvSB manipulation led to more time spent exercising than the ApSB-AvPA condition (108.99 vs. 60.6 seconds, p=.020). Sensitivity analyses excluding individuals who were highly physically active further revealed that participants in the ApPA-AvSB condition spent more time exercising than participants in the control condition (122.43 vs. 70.96 seconds, p=.047). Discussion: These findings provide preliminary evidence that a single intervention session can successfully change impulsive approach tendencies towards PA and can increase the time devoted to an exercise task, especially among individuals who need to be more physically active. Potential implications for health behavior theories and behavior change interventions will be outlined.