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Intention–behaviour gap in physical activity: unravelling the critical role of the automatic tendency towards effort minimisation
  1. Boris Cheval1,2,
  2. Liye Zou3,
  3. Silvio Maltagliati4,
  4. Layan Fessler5,
  5. Neville Owen6,7,
  6. Ryan S Falck8,
  7. Qian Yu9,
  8. Zhihao Zhang3,
  9. Olivier Dupuy10,11
  1. 1Department of Sport Sciences and Physical Education, École normale supérieure de Rennes, Bruz, France
  2. 2VIPS2 Laboratory, University of Rennes, Rennes, France
  3. 3Body-Brain-Mind Laboratory, School of Psychology, Shenzhen University, Shenzhen, China
  4. 4Human and Evolutionary Biology Section, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA
  5. 5Univ. Grenoble-Alpes, SENS, F-38000, Grenoble, France
  6. 6Physical Activity Laboratory, Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  7. 7Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  8. 8School of Biomedical Engineering, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  9. 9Faculty of Education, University of Macau, Macao, China
  10. 10Laboratory MOVE (UR 20296), Faculty of Sport Sciences, University of Poitiers, Poitiers, France
  11. 11School of Kinesiology and Physical Activity Science (EKSAP), University of Montreal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Liye Zou, Shenzhen University, Shenzhen, China; liyezou123{at}

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A recent meta-analysis published in British Journal of Sports Medicine by Feil and colleagues delivers a disconcerting verdict: the ‘successful translation of a positive intention into behaviour is nearly at chance’ (p. 1).1 The inability to act on intentions to be physically active is particularly concerning in the context of the global health challenge of physical inactivity.2 Therefore, it is imperative to better understand why individuals and populations fail to be physically active. There are several theoretical explanations that have been proposed to capture the central constructs that may help to effectively translate physical activity (PA) intention into action, such as the Health Action Process Approach or the Multiple-Process Action Control in PA.3 However, as the new review conducted by Feil and colleagues makes clear, these theories fall short in comprehensively addressing the intention–behaviour gap. In particular, the variables that can help people to act on their best intentions to be more active have yet to be more firmly identified.3

In this Editorial, we argue that the tendency to minimise effort has been largely underappreciated as a moderator of the intention–behaviour gap. By considering this mechanism as a fundamental principle of nature, whereby humans seek to avoid physical effort, we aim to shed light on the neuropsychological mechanisms that may underly the (un)successful self-regulation of PA. We begin with a brief overview of the Theory of Effort Minimisation in PA (TEMPA)—a theory that aims to explain the intention–action gap.4 We then discuss two pathways outlined by TEMPA that may pave the way to an active lifestyle: (1) the use of executive function and (2) the development of reinforcing affective associations for PA.

The Theory of Effort Minimisation in Physical Activity (TEMPA)

Humans inherently tend to minimise physical effort—although this tendency may vary based on situational factors and dispositional differences (see online supplemental file, …

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  • X @chevalboris, @Maltagliati_S, @LayanFessler

  • Contributors BC and LZ conceptualised this idea and wrote this paper. Other coauthors reviewed and edited this manuscript and agreed this final version.

  • Funding BC is supported by the Chaires de recherche Rennes Métropole.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.