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Substituting activities mediates the effect of cognitive flexibility on physical activity: a daily diary study

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Pursuit of physical activity goals often requires modifying plans, but research on these flexible processes is limited. Cognitive flexibility may heighten one’s likelihood of using flexible self-regulatory strategies (e.g., substitution), thereby increasing physical activity. This study used daily diary methodology to test the indirect effect of cognitive flexibility on physical activity via activity substitution. A sample of 128 college students (73% female, mean age 19.9) completed baseline measures and cognitive flexibility assessments, then logged physical activity daily for 2 weeks. Activity substitution was defined as adopting an alternate activity on a day another planned activity was unfulfilled. Controlling for baseline activity, intentions, and time, a multilevel mediation model revealed a significant indirect effect of cognitive flexibility on physical activity via activity substitution (b = 81.36, p = .041). Our results indicate that people with greater cognitive flexibility are more likely to use flexible self-regulation, leading to greater physical activity.

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  1. To assess the sensitivity of the model, we analyzed the data excluding covariates that did not fundamentally change the nature of the analysis. Controlling for baseline activity and time, but not intention, the indirect effect of task-switching on physical activity via substitution of activities remained significant, b = 79.30, p = .048, 95% CI: .77 to 157.83.


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Correspondence to Scout M. Kelly.

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Scout M. Kelly and John A. Updegraff declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and animal rights and Informed consent

All procedures followed were in accordance with ethical standards of the responsible committee on human experimentation (institutional and national) and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, as revised in 2000. Informed consent was obtained from all participants for being included in the study.

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Kelly, S.M., Updegraff, J.A. Substituting activities mediates the effect of cognitive flexibility on physical activity: a daily diary study. J Behav Med 40, 669–674 (2017).

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