Funded PhD Opportunity Perception of effort and physical activity responses in novice exercisers

This opportunity is now closed.

Subject: Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience


This scholarship is linked to the Northern Ireland Programme for Government.

Physical inactivity is considered a major risk factor for morbidity and premature mortality (Lee et al., 2012). However, the mortality risk is attenuated for those who are more physically active, and the most recent evidence suggests that high levels of physical activity (PA), equivalent to 60-75 minutes of moderate intensity PA per day (e.g., walking, jogging) seems to eliminate the risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle (Ekelund et al., 2016). PA is also associated with improvements in mental health and psychological wellbeing and a reduction in symptoms of both anxiety and depression, for example (e.g., Schuch et al., 2016). Despite this, most adults in Northern Ireland do not meet current PA guidelines. For example, in 2015/2016 53% of adults in Northern Ireland reported not participating in PA at least one day per week (McCallion, 2016). Furthermore, sport and PA participation in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland was lower (46%) than that in the least deprived areas (65%) (McCallion, 2016). In addition, 25% of children and 60% of adults in Northern Ireland are currently considered overweight or obese (Scarlett & Denvir, 2016).

These statistics highlight the importance of key aims of the government of Northern Ireland as set out in the Programme for Government (2016). Specifically, to meet the Programme for Government aims of people “Enjoying long, healthy, active lives”, for people to live healthily and to also improve the health of people in the poorest areas (i.e., “Being fair to everyone”), research prioritising PA health behaviour and related interventions is essential. As such, increasing and maintaining participation in free, publically accessible exercise programmes, such as the NHS Couch to 5k (C25K) running programme, can help reduce physical inactivity and provide a route to address social inequalities in sport participation, physical activity, and in health-related outcomes.

One area under-researched in PA behaviour and behaviour change is the role of effort perception during exercise. During physical exercise, perception of effort is the conscious sensation of how hard or strenuous a physical task is (Pageaux, 2016). The perceived level of effort required to perform a behaviour (e.g., physical exercise) has been shown to moderate the relationship between behavioural attitudes, intentions, and actual behaviour, with stronger intentions required to perform more effortful behaviours (e.g., Bagozzi et al., 1990). Perception of effort is also considered an inverse correlate of PA (e.g., Buman et al., 2012) and a source of exercise-induced displeasure and subsequent avoidance in obese individuals, for example (e.g., Ekkekakis et al., 2015).

However, evidence suggests that effort perceptions can be altered using various strategies (e.g., attentional focus, psychological skills) to reduce effort perception during exercise activity (e.g., Brick et al., 2014). Despite this, no studies have investigated the effectiveness of these strategies to improve long-term PA adherence. The present project aims to address this research gap with a specific focus on novice exercise participants.

Methods to be used: The project will include a systematic review to identify a range of practical interventions to reduce effort perception during PA. These may include attentional, psychological, and nutritional strategies. Repeated-measures design studies will investigate the efficacy of evidence-based strategies to reduce effort perception in novice participants (e.g., beginner runners on an NHS C25K plan) during acute exercise bouts. Previous research has suggested that such individuals may not have as well developed psychological and attentional skills, for example, in comparison with their more experienced counterparts (e.g., Russell & Weeks, 1994) and may benefit most from interventions designed to reduce effort perception during PA.

Outcomes of these studies will include psychological (e.g., perceived effort, affective state, exercise enjoyment), attentional (e.g., using eye-tracking systems), and physiological responses (e.g., heart rate, oxygen use). After identifying effective strategies from previous literature, a randomised control trial will be used to investigate the effectiveness of an intervention to reduce effort perception on long-term PA adherence in novice exercisers (i.e., on a C25K programme).

Objectives of the research: To identify practical interventions to reduce perception of effort during PA. To investigate the efficacy of strategies to reduce effort perception on psychological, attentional, and physiological responses during acute exercise bouts in novice exercisers. To determine the effectiveness of an intervention designed to reduce effort perception on long-term PA adherence in novice exercisers.

Skills required of the applicant: The applicant should have an interest in PA behaviour. They should demonstrate knowledge and understanding of behaviour change theory and of the role of effort perception during PA. The applicant should also demonstrate knowledge of the research methods outlined.


Bagozzi, R, Yi, Y., & Baumgartner, J. (1990). The level of effort required for behaviour as a moderator of the attitude-behaviour relation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 20, 45-59.

Brick, N., MacIntyre, T., & Campbell, M. (2014). Attentional focus in endurance activity: new paradigms and future directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7, 106-134.

Buman, A., Reis, R., Sallis, J., Wells, J., Loos, R., & Martin, B. (2012). Correlates of physical activity: why are some people physically active and others not? The Lancet, 380, 258-271.

Scarlett, M., & Denvir, J. (2016). Health Survey (NI) First Results 2015/2016. Department of Health, 1-24.

Ekelund et al., 2016). Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women. Lancet, 338, 1302-1310.

Ekkekakis, P., Vazou, S., Bixby, W., & Georgiadis, E. (2015). The mysterious case of the public health guideline that is (almost) entirely ignored: call for a research agenda on the causes of the extreme avoidance of physical activity in obesity. Obesity Reviews, 17, 313-329.

Lee, I. M., Shiroma, E. J., Lobelo, F., Puska, P., Blair, S.N., & Katzmarzyk, P. T. (2012). Lancet Physical Activity Series Working Group. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy.

Lancet, 380, 219-229. McCallion, C. (2016). Engagement in culture, arts and leisure by adults in Northern Ireland. Department for Communities, 1-15.

Pageaux, B. (2016). Perception of effort in exercise science: definition, measurement and perspectives. European Journal of Sport Science, 16, 885-894.

Russell, W. D., & Weeks, D. L. (1994). Attentional style in ratings of perceived exertion during physical exercise. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 78, 779-783.

Schuch, F. B., Vancampfort, D., Richards, J., Rosenbaum, S., Ward, P. B., & Stubbs, B. (2016). Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 77, 42-51.

Essential Criteria

  • Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed equivalent via UK NARIC)

Desirable Criteria

If the University receives a large number of applicants for the project, the following desirable criteria may be applied to shortlist applicants for interview.

  • First Class Honours (1st) Degree
  • Masters at 70%
  • Research project completion within taught Masters degree or MRES
  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain
  • Publications record appropriate to career stage



    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £ 14,777 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fees component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided).  For Non EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK.

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University

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Key Dates

Submission Deadline
Monday 19 February 2018
Interview Date
mid March 2018

Contact Supervisor

Dr Noel Brick

Other Supervisors

Apply online

Visit and quote reference number #240043 when applying for this PhD opportunity