Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Exercise and emotion

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Exercise and emotion:
The motivational power of exercise and how it influences your emotions everyday

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Barbell Group Fitness Class.JPG
Personal Training at a Gym - Pushups.jpg

What motivates people to exercise? Does the effect of exercise alter our moods or perception of life? Can it change our emotions? Can exercise really help us out of a prolonged state of sadness or depression? These are fascinating questions that we will attempt to answer in the following chapter.

Despite the beneficial elements of an active lifestyle, lack of physical activity has become a significant health issue of our time (Kilpatrick, Hebert & Bartholomew, 2005). Evidence clearly reflects that consistent physical activity vastly improves an individual’s physiological and psychological health (Kilpatrick et al, 2005). With the focus on addressing the growing disparity and between physical exercise and unhealthy eating habits, a variety of occupations associated with physical fitness have become more popular, including, physical educators, exercise physiologists, rehabilitation counselors and personal trainers (Folkins & Sime, 1981). Essentially, the concept is that, a healthy body equates to a healthy mind (Folkins & Sime, 1981). Psychological benefits include the improvement of both mood and a positive-self perception (Fox, Stathi & McKenna, 2007) and the reduction of anxiety, depression and other mental health related problems (Craft & Landers, 1998). Governments have also used policy making and national campaigns to promote the benefit of exercise to overall health and well-being and used health promotion initiatives in multiple settings, including programs in the workplace, community centers and physical education classes in school settings, university sport and recreation programs and individual counseling from healthcare providers (Kerr & Kuk, 2001) In spite of the large number of studies in this field, researchers are still not entirely certain of the process involved in mood modulation and improved psychological well-being from exercise (Kerr & Kuk, 2001).

This chapter will explore some of the key theories behind exercise motivation and provide you with the ability to test yourself along the way. Perhaps it will even motivate and inspire you to make a positive change in your life and go for a long walk, join a gym, sign up to a running group or hike up a mountain!

So what is Motivation?[edit | edit source]

To understand what motivates us, we need to determine an operational definition of motivation itself. One such definition dictates that motivation is essentially considered to be the sum of three parts that serve to direct, energise and regulate goal-directed behaviour (Ford, 1992). As such, motivation involves the interplay of goals, emotions and one’s own sense of personal agency (Ford, 1992). Motivation is considered to be one of four components including biological influences, environmental influences and non-motivational psychological and behavioural influences (Ford, 1992). In essence, motivation is only one aspect of a whole, and without the other aspects aligning, drive without substance will not equate to the realisation of an individual’s goals.

So what is Emotion?[edit | edit source]

Emotion is considered to be an involuntary, subconcious mental state which occurs as a result of an individuals environment, situation and cumulation of events in their life (Fox, 2008). Emotion is the result of an interplay between these factors and can be understood as a changeable and dynamic experience.

Before we begin...

Ask Yourself: Why do you/or don't you exercise? Write these reasons down and then see how the following theories relate to your experience of physical fitness!

Learning Objectives[edit | edit source]

To understand:

  • Theories behind why individuals choose to exercise
  • The effects of exercise on emotion
  • How exercise effects various aspects of an individuals health

Theories associated with Exercise Motivation[edit | edit source]

Theories Main Aspects
Self-Determination Theory (SDT) Relates to competence, autonomy and well being which if satisfied lead to an increase in self-motivation and mental health, and when dissatisfies, lead to diminished motivation and well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000). STD is concerned with the organic and biological drives associated with intrinsic(inner drive) and extrinsic(external drive) motivation, social development and well-being. This theory stresses the importance of individual’s inner resources for personality development and behaviour regulation and is interested in the ongoing challenge humans face in adapting to a changing social environment (Wilson, Mack & Grattan, 2008).
Motivational Systems Theory (MST) Focuses on three primary factors that serve to direct, energise and regulate goal-directed activity (Ford, 1992). Essentially this is the result of interaction between all three factors. If we were to apply this to your life, you could ask yourself, ‘What do I want to do?’ How much am I willing to do it? And Do I think I can actually make it happen?’ (Ford, 1992).
Competence Motivation Theory Purports that individuals are essentially motivated to engage in mastery behaviour that satisfies an intrinsic need to be challenged and a need to satisfy self-control. This theory is primarily associated with self-perception, which serves as a measure for self-esteem, which has reliably shown to predict exercise behaviour (Boyd, Weinmann & Yin, 2002). This consistency is reflected through the determination and drive in athletes to master and perform at a high level, or an individual to challenge themselves by lifting weights at a gym.
Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) & Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB) The TPB is an updated version of the TRA, and focuses on theoretical constructs related to an individuals motivations and the likelihood of them performing a specific behaviour (Motano & Kasprzyk, 2008). The theory is based on the assumption that the best predictor of behavioural intention is determined by:
  • Attitude toward the behaviour
  • Perceived control over the behaviour; and
  • Social/normative perceptions around the behaviour
Integrated Behavioural Model (IBM) Includes constructs from TRA and TPB as well as various other aspects of other theories. The IBM involves:
  • Intention to perform the behaviour
  • Knowledge and skill to fulfil the behaviour
  • Minimal environmental or behavioural constraints that could interfere with the behaviour being fulfilled
  • The behaviour should be salient to the individual (important to the individual) (Montano & Kasprzyk, 2008).

Test Yourself: Can you name two theories related to possible motivations to exercise? What are the main ideas behind why people choose to exercise?

Theory in Practice- Thinking about what we know![edit | edit source]

The above theories provide a foundation for understanding the motivations for exercise behaviour, including the desire to achieve an elevated mood, improved health, or the longevity of cognitive function for the elderly to attain prolonged independence. Each theory has strengths and weaknesses and can be applied to varying contexts to explain the motivations behind exercise.

  • Self-Determination Theory (SDT)

In terms of extrinsic motivation, the motivation to do something is based on external incentives or influence and can include money, success or rewards. Intrinsic motivation is more focussed on achieving a goal or completing a behaviour for the pure satisfaction and enjoyment of the task. For this reason, intrinsic behaviour, rather than extrinsic is more reliable as a predictor of behaviour. With an extrinsic motivation, the removal of the incentive can extinguish the behaviour, but with intrinsic motivation, the behaviour itself becomes the reward (Ryan & Desi, 2000). In terms of exercise and elevated emotions, intrinsic motivation would be the more consistent approach as it promotes the idea of the behaviour as enjoyable and stimulating. When exercise is simply performed for a reward, insufficient results, tiredness, lack of improved self-perception or laziness could prevent an individual from sticking to an exercise regime. Lets Look at a scenario:

Anna is physically unfit. She works at a desk job and when she gets home, she is too tired to go to the gym. When Anna was younger, she didn't like sport much, but she loved to dance. Now that she works full time, she barely dances.

Scenario 1: Anna's mum says that if she joins a gym and starts exercising, she will clean Anna's house for her for two months.

Scenario 2: Anna's mum locates a nearby dance and aerobic mix class that runs on Anna's lunch break. She knows Anna finds a great deal of joy and enjoyment in dancing and offers to pay for a semester of classes.


Test Yourself: Which do you think will result in extrinsic motivations and which will result in intrinsic motivations?

External motives (associated with extrinsic motivation) are negatively associated with physical activity (Litt, Iannotti, and Wang, 2011). By turning a chore into a purposeful and meaningful intrinsic desire, physical activity and fitness can become something consistent rather than transitory.

  • Motivational Systems Theory (MST)

This theory is reflective of the basic thought process behind completing a task. Its limitations are associated with the self-perception that is often associated with negative body image. That is, if an individual asks themselves three questions, ‘What do I want to do?’ How much am I willing to do it? And Do I think I can actually make it happen?’ (Ford, 1992), then low self esteem and negative self perception can be a obstacle to this.

  • Competence Motivation Theory (CMT)

Mastery and competency are important drives for people who are passionate about their health and fitness. However, not all individuals consistently exercise despite gaining higher self esteem or losing weight (associated with positive self-perception). For instance, how might this explain the body builder who retires and gains excessive weight?

  • Integrated Behavioural Model (IBM)

Knowledge and skill to complete the behaviour and minimal social or behavioural constraints are considered crucial to this theory. However, often individuals engage in exercise activities without a skill set. They do so in the hope to achieve some form of personal or psychological goal and do not necessarily have specific knowledge to complete a specialised task. In terms of social constraints, individuals with special needs and physical or mental disabilities can achieve amazing results from exercise or sporting activities (eg. Paralympics) and do so with both psychological and physical constraints.

The effects of exercise on emotion[edit | edit source]


Test Yourself: The next time you are in a bad mood, go for a long walk. When you return, assess your emotional state. Are you still as angry or frustrated as you were before your walk? Do you feel that the exercise calmed you down?

Mental Health Consequences[edit | edit source]

Exercising activates vital functions in the brain that reduces cognitive decline (Photo by:

A growing body of evidence suggests that physical activity can prevent some aspects of mental illness, such as depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (Fox et al, 2006). The risk to cognitive impairment through age is not one that is markedly set, but something that can be lessened through exercising vital functions within the body to prolong mental longevity and improve overall mental health. Exercise is one such function. Studies show that individuals who spent more time moving and less time sedentary rated their overall health and well being higher than those of the inactive participants (Fox et al, 2007). This is particularly crucial for the elderly, as their cognitive resources are inextricably linked to their ability for independent living (Frank and Patla, 2003).

In a study by Colcombe, Erikson, Raz, Webb, Cohen, McAuley and Kramer (2003), it was identified that human beings tend to gradually lose tissue from the third decade of life and experience a decrease in overall cognitive performance. Their study reflected this decline through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) in the frontal, parietal and temporal cortices (Colcombe et al, 2003). Results from the study indicated that those who engaged in aerobic fitness had substantially reduced levels of decline (Colcombe et al, 2003).

In the ‘Better Ageing Project’ – an initiative to prevent decline in the elderly, participants felt that the results of exercise left them with a feeling of phsycial health and psychological well being (Fox et al, 2007) with those who were in the group with higher levels of moderate to intense physical activity, felt they experienced an overall better quality of life (Fox et al, 2007).

Emotional Consequences[edit | edit source]

Regardless of gender and age, physical activity has been found to have a positive effect on emotional states such as anxiety and depression (Guszkowska, 2004). Both correlational and experimental studies have reflected this in the literature, with the effects of exercise being especially significant in participants with elevated levels of anxiety and depression due to their low emotions being subject to greater observable change (Guszkowska, 2004). This has been verified in further research, with one study, finding that exercise was comparable to antidepressants in terms of reducing negative feelings in participants and improving their emotional state (Douglas, N/A). For the benefits of long term health, population studies have found that exercise can reduce or eliminate stress, reduce anger and improve overall mental health (Douglas, N/A). In a study conducted in the Netherlands, exercisers were found to be more satisfied with their life and were happier than non-exercisers (Stubbe, Moor, Boomsma & Geus, 2006). Ultimately, they were happier with their lives and had a greater sense of well-being.

Exercise reduces stress and can repress aggression and anger(Photo by:

Summary[edit | edit source]

Exercise produces a myriad of positive short-term and long-term benefits. Through exercise we can find an outlet for stress, a coping mechanism for grief, a method to improve our mind, and a vessel to enhance our self-perception. Exercise can alleviate the pain and suffering that is associated with illness, can calm the anxious mind, elevate the depressed heart and breathe life into a declining mind. Through exercise we can open up the possibility and potential of our own capacity to achieve and to enhance our daily lives and unburden ourselves of the worries and anxieties that we often let overwhelm us. Exercise and emotion are inextricably linked and are the foundations of accessing longevity, vitality, a sense of well-being and a better quality of life.

Quiz - What have you learned?[edit | edit source]

1 Complete the following sentences using what you have learned.

Self-determination theory is based on three

needs (in alphabetical order):




2 External rewards are better than intrinsic motivators for fostering achievement motivation.


3 True of false: emotions have little effect on performance in sport?


See also[edit | edit source]

  • Interested in a technique to calm your body and your mind? - take a look at Yoga and emotion

References[edit | edit source]

:Boyd, M., & Weinmann, C., & Yin, Z. (2002). The relationship of physical perception and goal orientations to intrinsic motivation for exercise. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 25, 1-18.
Colcombe, S., & Erickson, K., & Raz, N., & Webb, A., & Cohen, N., & McAuley, E., & Kramer, A. (2003). Aerobic fitness reduces brain tissue loss in ageing humans. Journal of Gerontology, 2, 176-180.
Craft, L.L., & Landers, D.M. (1998). The effects of exercise on clinical depression resulting from mental illness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 20, 339-357.
Douglas, R. Exercise and Happiness. See:
Folkins, C., & Sime, W. (1981). Physical fitness training and mental health. American Psychologist, 4, 373-389.
Ford, M. (1992). A review of motivating humans. Sage Publishing: Newbury Park CA.
Fox, K., & Stathi, A., & McKenna, J., & Davis, M. (2007). Physical activity and mental well-being in older people participating in the better ageing project. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 100, 591-602. doi: 10.1007/s00421-007-0392-0
Fox, Elaine (2008). Emotion Science: An Integration of Cognitive and Neuro-scientific Approaches. Palgrave MacMillan.
Guszkowska, M. (2004). Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood. Psychiatric Journal, 38, 611-620.
Kerr, J., & Kuk, G. (2001). The effects of low and high intensity exercise on emotions, stress and effort. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 1, 173-186.
Kilpatrick, M., & Hebert, E., & Bartholomew, J. (2005). College students’ motivation for physical activity: Diffeentiating men’s and women’s motives for sport participation and exercise. Journal of American College Health, 54, 87-94.
Litt, D., Iannotti, R., & Wang, J. (2011). Motivation for Adolescent Physical Activity. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 8, 220 -226.
Montano, D.E., & Kasprzyk, D. (2008). Theory of reasoned action, theory of planned behaviour and the integrated behavioural model. Jossey-Bass.
Ryan, R.M., & Deci. E.L. (2000). Self determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. doi: 10.1037110003-066X.55.1.68
Stubbe, J.H., & de Moor, M.,& Boomsma, D.I., & de Geus, E. (2007). The association between exercise participation and well-being: A co-twin study. Journal of Preventative Medicine, 44, 148-152.
Wilson, P., & Mack, D., & Grattan, K. (2008). Understanding motivation for exercise: A self-determination theory perspective. Canadian Psychology, 49, 250-256.

External links[edit | edit source]

See also: