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How Important is Motivation?

Most people are not engaging in physical exercise at a level consistent with current recommendations. Although the numerous health benefits of regular exercise are well known, for many inactive or irregular exercisers, this knowledge is insufficient to ensure long-term persistence. Although some people do not intend to exercise at all, others express some personal motivation to exercise, yet fail to sustain it over time. To understand exercise behavior, both the quantity and quality of a person’s motivation should be considered because it is not only a matter of a lack of motivation (i.e., the person does not see any reason to exercise, or feels that he or she is not capable of doing it properly), but also of differing types of motivation that influence exercise behaviors. It is easy to comprehend that beginning to exercise to please others (or even due to internal pressure in the case of guilt) will have potentially different consequences than exercising because it is interesting, fun, or challenging. In the case of the former, the probability of sustained exercise adherence is unlikely, unless something changes and the person finds exercising meaningful (e.g., “while at the gym, I discovered an indoor cycling class that I enjoy doing… I liked the instructor; he or she made me feel good about my skills and challenged me in a good way. He or she also cared about my doubts and fears… I will definitely continue to attend this class”). This article will focus on how individual reasons/motivations for exercise may change from exercise initiation to persistence and how health and fitness professionals can support their clients throughout that process.

Sustaining physical activity and exercise has been shown to be highly challenging, with exercise research over the past 30 years reporting that up to 50% of exercise initiators drop out within three to six months. The success or failure of individuals to adhere to an exercise routine is down largely to their motivation, whereas one’s motivation to begin and persist with exercise is multidimensional and dynamic in nature. These motivational dynamics can be described as the processes by which individual reasons to initiate and/or sustain an exercise routine change over time. Ideally, these fluctuations in motivation would result in stronger internalization, wherein the individual reasons for exercising become “part of the self.” A strong internalization of a given behavior is desirable because the more a behavior is internalized and integrated, the more likely it is to be maintained over time.

There are many different reasons that underlie exercise initiation and persistence, although not all of these motives will ensure sustained behavior in the long run. It seems, therefore, that not all personal reasons to exercise truly are self-chosen and deeply committed to (i.e., “I want to exercise”) but rather self- or other-imposed (i.e., “I should exercise”). In other words, not all personal reasons to exercise are of the same motivational quality.

Deci’s and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a contemporary theory of human motivation, presents a suitable theoretical framework for investigating the various reasons people have for engaging or disengaging in exercise and the extent to which these reasons are their own or imposed (i.e., degree of internalization). The theory assumes that different types of motivation (or reasons) lie on a continuum that varies in the degree of self-determination or autonomy. From the lower end of the continuum, the motivational types are as follows:

  • Amotivation reflects a lack of intention to engage in exercise (e.g., I don’t know why I should exercise).
  • External regulation, a quite controlling type of motivation, refers to exercise engagement that occurs to obtain external rewards or to avoid punishment (e.g., I exercise because I don’t want to upset my physician).
  • Introjected regulation, a slightly less controlling type than external regulation, reflects engagement in exercise that occurs because of internal pressure and feelings of guilt and shame (e.g., I exercise because otherwise, I would feel guilty).
  • Identified regulation, a fairly autonomous type of motivation, represents exercise engagement that occurs because of a perceived meaningfulness and valuation of exercise-related outcomes (e.g., I exercise because it is important for me to feel energetic).
  • Integrated regulation, an even more autonomous type, reflects exercise engagement not just because of its importance but also because exercising is congruent with important individual values (e.g., I exercise because it is a part of who I am). Finally,
  • Intrinsic motivation, the most autonomous type of motivation, represents exercise engagement that occurs because the activity itself is inherently pleasurable, challenging and meaningful (e.g., I exercise because it is “my moment”; because it challenges me; because it is fun).

As mentioned previously, these differing types of motivation (regulations) are situated along a continuum of relative autonomy. The greater the relative autonomy of one’s behavior, the more likely the person is to maintain the behavior (even in the face of barriers), to have more positive experiences regarding an activity, and to perform better.

In addition, SDT assumes that the continuum is supported by the extent to which the three basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are satisfied. The need for autonomy is satisfied when people feel they are the origin of their own behaviors, (e.g., I choose to exercise). Theneed for competence is met when people perceive that they effectively interact with the behavioral context (e.g., I am good at exercising). Lastly, the need for relatedness is satisfied when people feel connected and cared for by others in the behavioral context (e.g., I feel accepted and related to others). Furthermore, according to SDT, the social context (e.g., a fitness class) can either support or thwart these needs and therefore determines how autonomously regulated one is toward a given behavior. Thus, to the extent that a client feels his or her psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are supported (e.g., in a discussion with an exercise instructor about modifying his or her exercise plan), the client feels self-determined regarding exercising.

Quite frequently, the behavioral regulations of health behaviors such as exercise occur outside rather than inside a person, especially in the initial weeks of the behavior. External agencies, which could include physicians, instructors, friends and family, remind us, offer advice, or even urge us to be more physically active, while at the same time exert some kind of social pressure (or social control) on us. This social control can be particularly detrimental when the drive to respond to it is predominantly associated with obtaining rewards, avoiding punishment, or to obtain the approval of others and maintain one’s self-worth. Social control, however, also can occur implicitly (i.e., without awareness). A prime example of this is complying with previously learned societal rules and norms (e.g., being fit and lean). Furthermore, apart from relying on external (i.e., external regulation) or internal (i.e., introjected regulation) pressures, socially controlled motivation does not reflect a clear appreciation of the behavior itself. The behavior is simply seen as a means to achieve/avoid certain externally regulated incentives/pressures or to avoid internal discomfort.

Many people engage in exercise, and sometimes persist with it, not because they inherently enjoy it, but rather because they have something to gain from it (e.g., improved appearance) or want to avoid an unfavorable outcome. This internally perceived pressure also might slightly increase within the first few months of exercising. Pressure, whether external or internal, represents a very strong motivator, and experiencing a “bad conscience” or receiving advice from a significant other can be quite energizing, not least because people have a natural tendency to reduce unpleasant feelings such as guilt and shame. Nonetheless, although pressure might be motivating for a time, the cessation of this pressure (e.g., an urging physician, the worried wife) or the failure of the pressure to be internalized will likely result in the cessation of the exercise behavior. Moreover, research has shown that exercise behavior that is purely based on controlled regulations is associated with maladaptive outcomes such as lower self-esteem, negative affect, and feelings of shame and guilt.

It is not yet entirely clear why some people sustain their exercise behaviors whereas others do not. When experiencing the positive effects of exercise, such as feeling full of energy, people might continue to exercise because they value these exercise-related outcomes, rather than because they think they should exercise. At the point at which people experience this shift in their motivational focus and establish a personal and meaningful connection with the exercise behavior and its outcomes, they develop a different type of motivation that is no longer characterized by external or internal pressures. This is the greatest benefit and our goal as health and fitness professionals.

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