The Psychological Barriers to Physical Activity

Due to technological advances and conveniences, many peoples lives have become less active. There are multiple aspects that contribute to this including physiological, behavioural and psychological factors. A psychological barrier refers to any psychological or emotional issue that intervenes with an athletes ability to perform to the best of their ability, consistently. This includes athletes attitudes, opinions and perception which may prevent them from participating in sport. A few examples of psychological barriers include:

Energy levels, stress, lack of motivation, lack of time and the fear of failure or injury, etc.

Lack of motivation

Motivation is the reason as to why do what we do, behave and respond in such a manner that is particular to us. Motivation is the word derived from the word motive which is associated with our needs and desires which drive us to achieve certain goals. Motivation can be categorised into two groups: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is concerned with those who engross themselves in an activity for the pleasure and enjoyment whereas extrinsic motivation is directed towards those who engage in an activity because of the admired outcome rather than an actual interest in it.

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However, a lack of motivation can act as a psychological barrier which prevents individuals from participating in any type of physical activity or sport. If an individual is not motivated they will have no drive to take part and therefore will not get involved in the exercise due to a state of low arousal. Low motivation levels can result in athletes not making full mobilisation of they enthusiasm and as a consequence lead to insufficient play or a decrease in performance and effort level.

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Athletes experience multiple highs and lows throughout their career, with both wins and loses therefore they must rely on their intrinsic motivation and the love of what they do to help them overcome these negative obstacles and push forward even when they fail. For example, many football players following a bad pass in the match will use their passion of the game to engross themselves in the play and as a results recover from their mistake, instead of giving up.


Stress is the body's way of responding to any type of threat or demand. It is mainly seen as a negative physiological state and psychological response to certain situations which people are put into. However, not all stress should be seen as totally negative for example motivational stress can encourage us to carry out certain activities and to do them well. It is known that without this sort of stress, we would find it to difficult to get up and actually do anything, therefore it is essential in giving us energy and guidance. This type of positive stress is known as eustress (the good stress), but negative stress that can be damaging is referred to as distress.

Distress is an extreme type of anxiety, restlessness and nervousness towards a situation where the individual feels they are unable to meet the demands required which is therefore why it is referred to a as a psychological barrier. Excessive stress can in some cases cause strong and sustained tension on an individual, some of the characteristics following this includes; a lack of inspiration and motive which can then lead to a decrease in performance level and even a drop in participation rate.

The fear of failure

The fear of failure can have a very strong presence, which holds individuals back from reach their true potential. It is a clear psychological barrier which can place a multiple restraints on an athlete from succeeding or even participating. A successful athlete will challenge themselves, and often take a step out of their comfort zone, even if it seems risky and could result in failure. However for others, the thought of making a mistake in front of their coaches, teammates, or fans is terrifying and as a consequence they prefer to remain within their comfort zone and do as little as possible to prevent themselves from becoming embarrassed. So, if an athlete does not take any risks, it could be an indication that they are experiencing a fear of failure. Research suggests that there are two main motives consumed within all humans: n.Ach and n.Af. n.Af represents the need to avoid failure, this theory states that people will do anything they can to avoid any type of failure this includes choosing the easy option. Some of the characteristics of a performer with such display are:

  • Avoid responsibility with the fear they'll become humiliated
  • Gives up easily
  • Chooses task which are easy
  • Low confidence

A sporting example of this includes a boxer who only chooses to fight those he knows he can beat because he is scared of the shame that would be brought upon him if he lost. This is evidently a psychological barrier which prevents individuals from performing to the best of their ability.

Why People Take Part in Exercise

Physical activity is just any form of exercise or movement you do to manning your health and fitness, this therefore mean it does not have to be a competitive sport. By leading an active lifestyle, it contributes positively to your physical, mental and social wellbeing. This includes participating in exercise and physical activity on a regular basis.

The social benefits

By taking part in exercise it give individuals the opportunity to go out and meet new people of all different ages and backgrounds. Individuals can then make friends and use their form of exercise as a platform to socialise with these people more on a friendly basis.

Not all exercise involves working within groups but some do, which provides individuals an opportunity to work on their teamwork and cooperation skills. By taking part in exercise with others in team activities, such as netball or football people can learn to work together and help each other progress.

The physical benefits

Exercise on a regular basis helps individuals maintain or improve their health. By participating in physical activity people are able to reduce their chance of getting ill, for example reducing the risk or coronary heart disease and diabetes and also increase their life expectancy. Exercise is also for those who would like to lose of manage their weight.

People take part in exercise to also improve their fitness. Individuals are able to increase multiple physical and skill related component of fitness through exercise. For example, making significant changes to their strength, aerobic endurance and flexibility.

Exercise also aid the individuals who would like to improve their overall sporting performance. The more they participate and do an activity the better they will get at it.

The mental benefits

Some people decide to take part in physical activity just for the ‘feel good factor’. As we exercise, the body releases two hormones called serotonin and endorphins into the blood stream. These are known as the ‘happy hormones’ because they make you feel good during exercise and as a result, individuals want to do more of it. This is known as boosting peoples self-esteem and making them more confident within themselves.

Exercise is also a form of stress relief. It helps prevent stress-related illnesses as it distracts people form their worries and stressful daily responsibilities.

Updated: Feb 25, 2024
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The Psychological Barriers to Physical Activity. (2024, Feb 25). Retrieved from

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