Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Exercise motivation

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Exercise motivation:
How to get fitness motivation and how to keep it going
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

History of motivation[edit]

William James was the first to introduce motivation as a psychological concept in 1890 (Deci & Ryan, 1985). James believed that when an individual is motivated towards a task their attention is more drawn to it and in turn that amplified attention affects how that activity is undertaken. In 1918 Woodworth then learnt the concept that someone can be extrinsically motivated as well as intrinsically (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Despite the importance of this major finding, due to the fact that it occurred at the same time as both Watson and Thorndike’s major studies which were not in the field of motivation.[Rewrite to improve clarity] Due to this there was inadequate research undertaken following this finding.

What is motivation?[edit]

Motivation is the process of starting, directing and maintaining physical and psychological activities. Motivation is what gives actions energy and direction.[factual?] To describe someone as motivated is to say that they are willing to do something. Concepts such as desire (an unsatisfied longing or craving) and wish (to have or express a desire) tend to be relevant when it comes to motivation as well.

Motivation is the driving force behind all our actions, and is the reason why we do anything at all. If there was no form of motivation present a person would not even perform everyday tasks such as getting out of bed in the morning. Motivation starts our drives and is a function that allows us to undertake tasks throughout life (Velez, 2008). Things that effect[grammar?] our motivations range from emotional and social cues to cognitive and even biological ones.

Motivation consists of 3 main areas: foundation, determination and passion (Cherry, 2010). Foundation of motivation is when a deliberated decision is made to begin behaviour. Foundation would be shown in the decision to buy a gym membership or attend a boot camp. Determination in this instance would be taking advantage of the gym membership and going to the gym. Dependant on the intended goals of attending the gym, this would mean that you would become stronger or fitter from the gym sessions. In order to do this though you have to invest a large amount of time to do so. Passion is the level of effort that is applied to each individual session that you spend in the gym. This is not something that will always remain a constant. Individuals may perform a session with extreme intensity one day but not the next due to variations in the person’s passion.

There are two main types of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic. At least one of these motivators is the reason why any task is performed, ever.

  • Extrinsic motivation is when there is a reinforcer for a particular task in the form of either a reward of punishment. This type of motivating force only occurs with the addition of something that is external to the activity itself, such as prize money. (Deci & Ryan, 1985) this type of motivation is encountered on a daily basis in the form of people going to work for money.
  • Intrinsic motivation is when behaviour is undertaken as a part of enjoyment, exploration and personal interest when it does not require the use of a reinforcer to complete the activity. (Deci & Ryan, 1985) When someone performs a task based on their own level of self-satisfaction in the absence of an external reinforcer. There is still the presence of a reinforcer, but it is internal and gained from purely performing the activity. (Ryan, Frederick, Lepes, Rubio, & Sheldon, 1997)

What is exercise?[edit]

Exercise is activity requiring physical effort, carried out in order to sustain or improve health and fitness. Exercise is performed with the goals to increase muscle strength and the abilities of the cardiovascular system, refine skills and abilities, personal enjoyment and weight loss.

Regular exercise is also a major positive factor in maintain[grammar?] good health. It has been shown to reduced risk of obesity, certain cancers, adult onset of diabetes, heart diseases, and most recent findings include it being linked to a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome (Wilson, Mack, & Grattan, 2008). Receiving enough exercise is a worldwide problem in today’s society when in America it was found that over 50% of the adult population does not regularly exercise (Stevenson & Lochbaum, 2008).

There are many different forms of exercise; flexibility, aerobic, anaerobic, strength training, and agility training. All of which are designed to improve different categories of physical skill; Cardiovascular endurance, Stamina, Strength, Flexibility, Power, Speed, Coordination, Agility, Balance, and Accuracy.

Exercise itself is also very dependent on the individual’s needs, desires and goals. A person that is training to run a marathon requires a much larger amount of exercise than someone that is just looking to lose weight for their wedding.

The common purpose of exercise is to achieve physical fitness as it raises your heart rate and works your muscles to a more intense degree (Glanville, 2009).

In the world today there are multitudes of ways in which someone can exercise. People exercise by attending a gym or pool to walking or running outside and even joining a sports team. The way in which each person exercises is completely a personal decision but the most effective form of exercise is one that is enjoyable and fun for them, this will ensure that it is more likely to be undertaken on a regular basis.

Theories and research[edit]

Self-determination theory[edit]

Self-determination theory ("SDT") the theory of human motivation and personality. It is concerned with the motivation behind the choices that people make without any external influence. SDT mainly focuses on the importance that intrinsic motivation has on the driving forces of human behaviour. Intrinsic motivation is the internal energising force that compels someone to engage in an activity such as exercise. SDT also covers people's inherent tendencies towards growth and any inherent psychological needs. It is important to understand that when motivation is linked with physical exercise, SDT can be both intrinsically motivated (enjoyment of running) or extrinsically motivated (need to lose weight).

Another important part of SDT is amotivation, or lack of motivation. (Ryan et al., 2009) This is something that affects a large number of people when it comes to exercise. Amotivation coincides with a sincere lack of self-determination in individuals (Wininger, 2006).This lack of motivation can arise from a number of sources, such as a lack of self-confidence due to a negative past experience or even lack of experience itself.

Intrinsic motivation is a more common factor in SDT than extrinsic motivation as it is connected with a person who is engaging in a particular action. People that are participating for internal reasons of their own enjoyment and in turn are not as worried about the outcomes of the activity are more motivated to to continue over those that have external reasons, or extrinsic motivations. (Thogersen-Ntoumani & Ntoumani, 2006).

SDT is a major contributing factor in people’s success in both the results of physical activity, and the continuation of it. SDT plays a part in all exercise that people participate in, ranging from walking a few times a week to elite athletes. When someone is intrinsically motivated and self-determined they are able to gain greater satisfaction from an activity.

Applying Self-determination/ Intrinsic Motivation to exercise

When choosing a form of exercise, the best way to decide is to pick something that you derive some enjoyment from already. If you enjoy doing it, you are more likely to continue doing it in the future. When someone hates running but decided that they are going to run to get fit they are going to find it harder to stick to their training program than if they did something that they enjoyed, like swimming.

Incentive theory[edit]

Incentive theory of motivation, unlike SDT, is largely associated with external rewards and extrinsic motivation. A reward is presented after an action or behaviour with the intention to cause that behaviour to occur again. Extrinsic motivation is defined as participating in a behaviour or action in order to gain a preferred outcome which is completely detached from the activity itself (Deci & Ryan 1985). Extrinsic motivation occurs when there is the presence of an external reinforcer in the environment that motivates an individual to perform a task. An example of this would be when someone allows themselves to have a food reward, like a chocolate muffin, after attending the gym. This form of reward is called a primary reinforcer. (Stevenson & Lochbaum, 2008) It is possible that there is both internal and external motivation on an activity. When someone has an internal dive to do something, but the main reason that they are doing it is for the prize money that is available, the secondary reinforcer is the internal drive with the prize money being that primary reinforcer.

Applying Incentive Theory/ Extrinsic Motivation to exercise

Preferable motivation for exercise should come from intrinsic motivation but if extrinsic motivation is needed, then setting personal improvement goal as rewards rather than positive reinforcement with things such as food.

Practical application[edit]

When applying motivational theories practically to exercise motivation a few things need to be established; goals, the area of exercise and deadlines for those goals. The goals that are set need to be set by the individual that is undertaking them, they need to be meaningful to the person setting them and they need to be challenging but achievable. Then it is important, as previously stated, that the area in which to achieve these goals of exercise is one that can be enjoyed intrinsically by the person. It is difficult for a person to remain motivated in an activity that they are not originally motivated to do. If an area with this desired motivation cannot be found then extrinsic motivation can be applied through a series of reinforcers such as rewards for work done, but this is not ideal. Then when setting deadlines for your goals, it is almost never effective to set an ultimate deadline way off in the future and work towards just that. The most efficient way of setting deadlines is to have an ultimate goal, but to also have smaller short term goals along the way to ensure that you are remaining on track to achieve your overarching goal.

  • Hint: Having a single phrase that is meaningful to you on a card with you at all times that you refer to on a regular basis each day is helpful in making smaller short term changes to everyday living and increase your level of exercise.


The motivation behind an individual’s actions to exercise plays a large role in their continuation of that effort in the future. It is fairly common for those that wish to be healthier than they are to want to make a change, and often to begin to make that change but find it hard to stay motivated in their endeavours. The problem that is arising in this situation is almost always because they have developed and fostered the wrong type of motivation initially. Although internal and external motivation does play large roles in peoples actions on an everyday basis, it is those actions that are intrinsically motivated and are wholeheartedly enjoyed that are the most likely to be continued. With making this realisation it becomes apparent that motivation to exercise needs to be as intrinsic as possible at all times. If an individual is able to follow this they are more likely to remain with their program, reach their goals and being fitter and healthier as a result.


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