The Theory of Effort Minimization in Physical Activity

Boris Cheval; Matthieu P. Boisgontier


Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2021;49(3):168-178. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Although the automatic attraction to effort minimization has been evidenced in multiple fields, its potential role in explaining the pandemic of physical inactivity has been overlooked. The theory of effort minimization in physical activity (TEMPA) fills this gap. TEMPA seeks to obtain a more accurate understanding of the neuropsychological determinants of movement-based behaviors.


Imagine you planned to go for a walk this morning, but you got stuck to your chair. What are the forces that could explain this failure to engage in physical activity? Is it a paucity of a driving force toward the behavior to be achieved (walking), too much resistance posed by the behavior to be avoided (sitting in your chair), or a combination of the two? The theory of effort minimization in physical activity (TEMPA) presented in this article intends to answer these questions. TEMPA provides a theoretical framework to explain why many individuals intending to be physically active fail to turn these intentions into action.[1]

The involvement of automatic processes in the regulation of movement-based behaviors is accepted widely now.[2] Numerous studies testing these automatic processes have shown that physical activity cues attract attention, trigger positive affective reactions, and produce approach tendencies, especially in the most active people.[3–5] These results suggest that automatic responses to physical activity cues that are insufficiently positively valued can partly explain failures to engage in physical activity. However, a strong automatic attraction toward effort minimization could be another explanation. Neuroscientific studies testing decision making have shown that humans favor behaviors associated with lower effort.[6–8] Yet, effort minimization largely has been ignored in studies investigating the determinants of human engagement in physical activity. Hence, the role of this automatic attraction toward minimizing effort in the current pandemic of physical inactivity remains unclear.[9]

TEMPA offers a new perspective on the neuropsychological determinants of movement-based behaviors that integrates automatic reactions to physical activity cues and automatic attraction toward effort minimization in a single framework. This automatic attraction is discussed based on a neuropsychological approach to physical effort[6–8] anchored in an evolutionary perspective.[10,11] In the first part of this article, we briefly describe the dual-process theories of health behaviors and their recent applications to physical activity. Afterward, we explain how humans have evolved to be physically active but in an efficient way, through favoring behaviors that minimize effort. Next, we present TEMPA. Finally, we discuss the implications of this new theoretical framework for basic and applied research investigating the determinants of movement-based behaviors such as physical activity and sedentary behaviors.

In this article, we consider human behavior on an energetic continuum, with sedentary behaviors referring to any waking behavior characterized by an energy expenditure of 1.5 metabolic equivalent of task (MET) or lower while sitting, reclining, or lying down,[12] and physical activity as any waking behavior characterized by an energy expenditure superior to 1.5 MET produced by bodily movements.[13] Of note, positioning sedentary and physical activity behaviors on an energetic continuum does not prevent these behaviors from having their own motivational antecedents and health consequences, which have been widely reported in the literature.[14]Movement-based behaviors are the behaviors enacted for everything we do, including sitting, standing, and different intensities of physical activity.[15]Movement-related cues are cues related to movement-based behaviors. Exercise is considered as a subcategory of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and aims to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness.[13]Physical inactivity is not considered as a behavior but as a level of physical activity that is not sufficient to meet physical activity recommendations.[12]Energy is considered as the ability to produce physical action. Effort is thought as the level of cortical activity associated with the initiation or maintenance of a behavior. The brain constructs this perception based not only on the current physical effort that is elicited but also on previous experience of similar effort, motivation, awareness, and affects.[16] Effort minimization is defined as the process that aims to achieve the most cost-effective behavior based on this perception. This terminology is applied throughout the article except for names of previous theories.