Learning theories emphasize that learning a new, complex pattern of behavior, like changing from a sedentary to an active lifestyle, normally requires modifying many of the small behaviors that compose an overall complex behavior . Principles of behavior modification suggest that a complex-pattern behavior, such as walking continuously for 30 minutes daily, can be learned by first breaking it (down into smaller segments (e.g., walking for 10) minutes daily). Behaviors that are steps toward a final goal need to be reinforced and established first, with rewards given for partial accomplishment if necessary. Incremental increases, such as adding 5 minutes to the daily walking each week, are then made as the complex pattern of behavior is “shaped” toward the targeted goal. A further complication to the change process is that new patterns of physical activity behavior must replace or compete with former patterns of inactive behaviors that are often satisfying (e.g., watching television), habitual behaviors e.g., parking close to the door),or behaviors cued by the environment (e.g., the presence of an elevator).

Reinforcement describes the consequences that motivates individuals either to continue or discontinue behavior. Most behaviors, including physical activity, are learned and maintained under fairly complex schedules of reinforcement and anticipated future rewards. Future rewards or incentives may include physical consequences (e.g., looking better), extrinsic rewards (e.g., receiving praise and encouragement from others, receiving a T-shirt), and intrinsic rewards (e.g., experiencing a feeling of accomplishment or gratification from attaining a personal mile stone). It is important to note that although providing praise, encouragement, and other extrinsic rewards may help people adopt positive lifestyle behaviors, such external reinforcement may not be reliable for sustained long-term change.