Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Exercise motivation

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Exercise motivation:
How can we motivate ourselves to exercise?
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Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Regular exercise is important in maintaining good health.

Regular exercise is important in maintaining an individual’s health and wellbeing and regular exercise has many benefits to the individual including social benefits, health benefits, physical and mental wellbeing as well as the prevention of chronic disease[factual?]. However, in Australian society many people are overweight and over 50% of Australians don’t get enough physical activity according to physical activity guidelines identified by the Department of Health (n.d). Physical inactivity is currently the second greatest contributor to Australia’s cancer burden behind smoking (Department of Health, n.d.). With the benefits of exercising and consequences of not exercising being relatively clear it may lead us to wonder why more people don’t engage in regular exercise. Finding the motivation to exercise can be difficult for some people and a lack of motivation has been identified as one of the top five barriers to exercise motivation (Scarrapicha, Sabation, Anderson & Bengoechea, 2013).

Despite the benefits of participating in physical activity being widely known many people still don’t engage in regular physical activity (Pauline, 2013, Anderson & Moss, 2011). Finding the motivation to exercise is a key issue for many people who may be looking to improve their exercise habits. Some people may commit to an exercise program and either never participate or begin and then drop out (Magaraggia, Dimmick & Jackson, 2014). Fifty percent of participants drop out of exercise programs within six months of beginning the program (Stanley et al, 2012). With the importance of exercising in mind, this chapter will aim to identify ways in which we can improve our motivation to exercise by focusing on three methods of influencing motivation in sport, goal setting, imagery, and exercising with others.

Exercise and self determination theory[edit | edit source]

Much of the research into motivation to exercise is grounded in or related to Self-Determination Theory. Self-determination theory describes a continuum of motivation towards a task ranging from amotivated to intrinsically motivated, that is based on the degree to which a person’s motivation is internalised (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Self Determination Theory explains that intrinsic motivation is the most successful of the varying degrees of motivation in terms of engagement and persistence in exercise adherence as well as an individual’s intention to exercise (Ryan and Deci, 2007).

The degree to which an individual is intrinsically motivated is dependent on basic psychological needs of that individual which are, in turn, dependent on three needs (Ryan and Deci, 2007), the need for competence, need for autonomy and the need for relatedness (Moustaka, Vlachopoulos, Kabitsas, Theodorakis, 2012, Ryan and Deci, 2007). The degree to which a task fulfills these needs will determine where motivation from that task falls on the continuum and a task that fulfills all three of these needs is likely to result in a person being intrinsically motivated to perform that activity (Ryan and Deci, 2007).

Extrinsic motivation[edit | edit source]

Extrinsic motivation involves motivations to participate in a task that are not for intrinsic reasons, that is they are done for some external reward. There are four subcategories within the extrinsic motivation section of the continuum which differ in their degree of internalisation of that motivation (Ryan and Deci, 2007, Moustaka, 2012). These levels of extrinsic motivation have varying degrees of success in maintaining exercise behaviour with more internalised extrinsic behaviour being the most successful (Ryan and Deci, 2007).

External regulation[edit | edit source]

External regulation is at the extrinsic end of this continuum and occurs when a person is motivated to do a task solely for an extrinsic reward or to avoid punishment of some kind (Ryan and Deci, 2007). In an exercise context this may be a child participating in exercise only because s/he will receive a reward from a parent. This type of extrinsic motivation has low value in terms of long term motivation to exercise as the motivation only occurs when a reward is expected (Ryan and Deci, 2007).

Introjected regulation[edit | edit source]

Introjected regulation is the next step on the continuum and involves some degree of internalisation although the motivation is still mainly extrinsic (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Introjected motivation to perform a task occurs where participating in that task will lead to the avoidance of external sources of disapproval or for external approval (Ryan and Deci, 2007). For example, a person may engage in exercise to avoid the feelings of guilt they would experience if they were to not participate in physical activity.

Identified regulation[edit | edit source]

Identified regulation is slightly higher up on this continuum in terms of levels intrinsic motivation (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Identified motivation occurs for tasks that the individual believes are important and for personally held values (Moustaka et al, 2012, Ryan and Deci, 2007). For example, a person participating in an exercise program because they believe it is important to maintain a good level of health and fitness[grammar?].

Integrated regulation[edit | edit source]

The last stage of extrinsic motivation on the continuum is integrated regulation which is the most successful of the extrinsic motivations in resulting in sustained exercise behaviours (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Integrated motivation for a task occurs when the task is valued to the participant and their sense of who they are (Ryan and Deci, 2007). A sporting example could be a person who is motivated by integrated regulation may play team sports because social interaction, competition and exercise represent their values and are important to them.

Intrinsic motivation[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Exercise that is intrinsically motivated is likely to be sustained.

The last stage on the self-determination continuum is intrinsic motivation (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Ryan and Deci (2007) define intrinsic motivation as “propensity to actively develop skills, engage in challenges and take interest in new activities without external prompts or rewards”. Individuals who are at this level of motivation will participate in activities simply because they find them enjoyable and they get a sense of pleasure from performing the task (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Intrinsically motivated individuals will undertake and activity for no identifiable external reward (Ryan and Deci, 2007). An example of this may be a person undertaking daily morning runs not because of the health benefits, enhancement of body image or increased fitness but simply because s/he enjoys the act of running itself.

Of the varying levels of motivation identified in self-determination theory intrinsic motivation is the most likely to result in adherence to exercise programs and the continuation of that exercise (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Ryan and Deci (2007) stated that intrinsic motivation is an important feature in continuing exercise over a period of time. While most people engage in sports based on intrinsic motivation the desire to undertake exercise is usually extrinsically motivated (e.g., for improved body image; Ryan and Dec, 2007). While extrinsic motivation may also have a role when it comes to engaging in physical activity, exercise participation is more likely when a person is intrinsically motivated (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Well internalised extrinsic motivations (e.g. identified and integrated regulation) are also likely to lead to greater exercise adherence when compared to poorly internalised extrinsic motivations e.g. external regulation (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Both intrinsic and well internalised extrinsic motivations lead to greater engagement in exercise as people find intrinsic satisfaction in the activity and also instrumental value such as improved body image (Ryan and Deci, 2007).

Although for some individuals their reasons for exercising may be almost entirely extrinsic (Moustaka, Vlachopoulis, Kabitsis & Theodorakis, 2012) it is possible to make exercise more intrinsically motivating for that individual by manipulating the environment so that it supports the individual’s needs for competence and autonomy (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Intrinsic motivation can also be fostered in an individual by creating an environment that meets his/her needs for relatedness such as an environment that creates a sense of connectedness and belonging (Ryan and Deci, 2007).

When a person is motivated to participate in exercise through controlling methods such as punishments and rewards it is likely that long term motivation will be unsuccessful (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Although these methods may result in compliance and participation in exercise it is likely that the person’s degree of being intrinsically motivated to perform the task will be decreased as their sense of autonomy is reduced (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Offering true choice and decreasing external pressures allowing the opportunity for optimal challenge and providing feedback are all likely to increase intrinsic motivation for a task (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Social contexts also have the ability to influence an individuals’ sense of intrinsic motivation by supporting the three psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness (Ryan and Deci, 2007). By increasing the degree of internalisation of motivations to participate in physical activity it is likely that participation in exercise will be sustained and lead to better exercise behaviours.

Goal setting to enhance motivation[edit | edit source]

Goal setting has been used as a motivational tool in academic and workplace settings for many years and has more recently become used as a tool for motivating individuals to exercise (Baghurst, Bradford & Mulekar, 2012). Goal setting has been shown to increase persistence when adhering to an exercise program (Ryan and Deci, 2007). Goal setting is not as simple as identifying what one wants to achieve and then defining that as their goal but involves several factors. To be an effective goal for motivation a goal must be:

  1. Specific
  2. Realistic
  3. Challenging/Difficult
  4. Measurable

The first aspect of effective goal setting is to make the goal specific. Goal specificity is important as non-specific goals are vague and don’t define a measurable behaviour. For example,“I want to run more often” this describes a desire for improvement but provides no measureable benchmark (Roberts, 2001). A more appropriate goal would be “I want to run for 20 minutes three times a week” which is measurable and specific. In research the setting of specific goals has resulted in better performance than “do your best tasks” which provide no external reference for comparison (Baghurst et al, 2011). A specific goal allows performance to be objectively measured which helps to assess whether the goal has been reached and also to give participants a specific target to work for (Roberts, 2001).

Proximity of goals is another factor that influences their success and refers to how far away a goal is in terms of time (e.g. long term and short term goals; Roberts, 2001). While the main outcome of engaging in an exercise program may be to achieve a long term goal, setting of just a long term goal isn’t always effective (Roberts, 2001). To be more successful a long term goal must also incorporate several shorter term goals which build on each other to achieve the long term goal (Roberts, 2001). One reason as to why long term goals alone may be ineffective is that long term goals can be too abstract and have little motivational impact in the present (Roberts, 2001).

A focus on the distant future also makes it easier to slacken one's efforts as the goal is seen as far off (Roberts 1992). Short term goals on the other hand can be quite beneficial when it comes to creating motivation for the present (Roberts, 2001). By breaking a long term goal down into sub goals the sub goals seem much more achievable than the long term goal which can make the task of achieving these goals much less daunting (Roberts, 2001) Short term goals also provide immediate incentive and feedback where long term goals do not. Achieving sub goals can lead to feelings of competence by attaining indicators of mastery (Roberts 2001) which is likely to foster intrinsic motivation as competence is one of the three needs influencing intrinsic motivation (Moustaka, Vlachopoulos, Kabitsas, Theodorakis, 2012, Ryan and Deci, 2007).

To be successful in increasing motivation these proximal goals also need to be flexible as inflexible, rigid goals can lead to feelings of failure if some uncontrollable event such as illness prevents an individual from completing a goal (Roberts, 2001). Flexible goals mean that if a goal isn’t achieved for some reason it can be completed another time for example run on Monday Tuesday Friday versus run three days per week (Roberts, 2001). Repeated failure to achieve goals can also lead to a sense of learned helplessness (Weinberg and Gould, 2011).

The difficulty of goals set will also play a role in how effective they are at improving exercise motivation (Roberts, 2001). Goals set should be difficult enough that they provide a challenge to the individual otherwise they may appear too easy, unimportant and not worth attempting (Robert, 2001). However if goals are set that are too hard this may result in repeated failures so it is also important that while being challenging the goals set must also be realistic (Roberts, 2001). Although goals should be realistic some studies have shown that even goals that are seemingly unachievable can increase motivation (Roberts, 2010). Getting people to be involved in the goal setting process has some positive benefits on exercise motivation as it makes the goals personally relevant contributing to a sense of autonomy (Edmunds, Ntoumanis, Duda, 2007).

In summary in terms of practical applications to improve exercise motivation goal setting should incorporate both short and long term goals to avoid decline in effort, be specific and measureable so that a clear target can be identified and achievement of goals can be evaluated and be difficult yet also be realistic to maintain interest without becoming too easy and seemingly pointless (Roberts 2010).

Use of imagery to increase motivation[edit | edit source]

Imagery has long been an established way of improving performance in sporting and exercise contexts (Ryan and Deci, 2007). The use of mental imagery for improving an individuals’ motivation is heavily grounded in self-determination theory primarily because most interventions using mental imagery aim to improve a persons’ intrinsic motivation which as explained by self-determination theory increases a person’s likelihood to persist with an exercise program (Giacobbi, Dreisbach, Thurlow, Anand & Garcia, 2014)[grammar?]. Giacobbi et al (2014) demonstrated that the use of mental imagery alone and in conjunction with other methods of intervention can increase the intrinsic motivation of individuals and in turn their motivation to engage in physical activity.

It has been well established in the literature that vivid mental imagery can be used to foster intrinsic motivation to exercise however some types of mental imagery have proven more effective than others in fostering intrinsic motivation in individuals (Stanley, Cumming, Standage & Duda, 2012). Four types of mental imagery have been shown to have differing impacts on the exercise behaviour of individuals (Stanley et al, 2014). The main types of imagery used to influence exercise motivation are appearance, technique and enjoyment (Giacobbi, Hausenblas, Fallon &Hall, 2003) energy imagery and its influence on exercise motivation has also been examined by Stanley et al (2012)[grammar?].

Imagery types and uses[edit | edit source]

Appearance imagery was associated with extrinsic motivations as the act of engaging in exercise is motivated by a desire to improve one’s body image (Stanley et al, 2012, Giacobbi et al, 2003). Although this type of imagery is less effective than others it is a common strategy used by many who participate in exercise (Ryan and Deci, 2007) and it does have a role in motivating people to engage in and sustain physical activity ( Stanley et al, 2012, Giacobbi et al, 2014). Use of appearance imagery has been associated with controlled motivations so as predicted by self-determination theory it is less likely to be effective as a motivational tool as it doesn’t foster the internalisation of motivations (Stanley et al, 2012).

Technique imagery involves imagining performing the correct technique for an exercise (e.g. imagining lifting of weights, performing a goal kick; Giacobbi et al, 2003). Technique imagery has also been shown to be associated with autonomous motivations which in turn are linked to self-reported exercise behaviours and intention to exercise (Stanley et al, 2012). The use of technique imagery to foster autonomous motivations for exercise can be explained by imagining correct technique focuses on achieving an outcome that is central to the activity itself and therefore (Stanley et al, 2012).

Enjoyment imagery is the imaging of the task of participating in exercise as fun and enjoyable and imagining that when one will engage in physical activity it will be a positive experience (Stanley et al, 2012). Stanley et al (2012) demonstrated that along with technique imagery, enjoyment imagery is also associated with autonomous motivations, which as stated earlier is positively linked to intention to exercise and exercise behaviour.

Finally energy imagery has also been examined in terms of its effectiveness on fostering autonomous motivations with regards to exercise participation (Stanley et al, 2012). Energy imagery is the process of imagining oneself feeling energised and ready to engage in physical activity (Stanley et al, 2012). Use of energy imagery sits in between technique and enjoyment imagery and appearance imagery in terms of the degree to which it fosters internalisation of a motivation as it doesn’t foster controlling motivations like appearance nor is it as autonomous as technique and enjoyment (Stanley et al, 2012). However it can play an important role in motivating a person’s exercise behaviour although it doesn’t fit into the self-determination framework as well as other motivations do (Stanley et al, 2012). The way in which energy imagery influences motivation to exercise may involve different motivational mechanisms as it is likely that use of energy imagery will be used to sustain energy and to persist when participating in an exercise session (Stanley et al, 2012).

Summary[edit | edit source]

In summary the use of imagery to enhance motivation to exercise is fairly well established and is likely to result in increases in intention to exercise as well as exercise behaviour (Giacobbi et al 2014). Both technique and enjoyment imagery can have positive effects on exercise motivations by fostering a sense of autonomous motivation while energy imagery may have benefits for sustaining energy during exercise. Although appearance imagery is used by many as a source of motivation for exercise it is probably best avoided as it doesn’t result in an internalisation of the motivation to participate (Stanley et al, 2012).

Exercise with others[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Participating in team sports can enhance motivation to exercise.

There are several mechanisms by which exercising in groups provides opportunities to enhance motivation to exercise. Participating in team sports can foster intrinsic motivation through social activities and positive gameplay (Neilsen, Wikman, Jensen, Schmidt, Gileman & Andersen, 2014). This intrinsic motivation is likely to result in persistence when undertaking physical activity (Neilsen et al, 2014). Scarapicchia et al (2014) suggested that exercising with a partner may have motivational benefits as people tend to mimic the behaviour of others around them. People may also be more likely to achieve their goals if they elect to exercise with a partner as it increases their sense of relatedness and autonomy which helps to foster intrinsic motivation (Edmunds et al, 2007).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

In summary, although it is widely known that exercise has many positive benefits on health there are a large number of people who still don’t engage in regular physical activity (Anderson & Moss, 2011). As stated by Pauline (2013) motivation is one key barrier that prevents exercise participation. Self-determination theory has provided effective description of motivations to exercise from which we can identify ways in which we may enhance our motivation to exercise.

Goal setting is an effective method of increasing a person’s exercise behaviour and by setting specific, measurable and challenging tasks it is possible to facilitate autonomous motivations in an individual increasing the likelihood that future participation in exercise will occur.

Use of imagery is another well-established method of increasing motivation to participate in physical activity. By using enjoyment and technique imagery individuals may be able to facilitate intrinsic motivation thereby enhancing their motivation to participate in exercise Stanley et al, 2012). Use of energy imagery is also warranted as research has shown that although it may not increase intrinsic motivation within an individual it does have an important role in energising and individual and helping them to sustain motivation throughout a workout (Stanley et al, 2012). Appearance imagery although used by many participants may not be as an effective tool for fostering intrinsic motivation in individuals and is less likely to result in sustained exercise motivation (Stanley et al, 2012).

Exercising in groups or with a partner may also be beneficial for enhancing motivation to exercise by increasing an individual’s intrinsic motivation to participate (Scarapicchia et al, 2014, Edmunds et al, 2007). This is achieved by creating an environment which satisfies the needs of autonomy and relatedness through positive social interactions and perceived social support (Scarapicchia et al, 2014, Edmunds et al, 2007).

In conclusion, lack of motivation may be a key reason for poor participation levels in exercise, when considering the benefits of participating in physical activity it is important that people meet the recommended exercise guidelines in order to maintain good health[grammar?]. Through the application of different strategies it is possible to enhance an individual’s motivation to participate in physical activity.

Quiz[edit | edit source]


1 Self-Determination theory provides an explanation of the how an individual is motivated to perform a task.


2 Extrinsic motivations are more likely to lead to persistence in an exercise program.


3 What strategies can be used to enhance motivation to exercise?

Goal setting.
Use of imagery
Participating in exercise in a group/ with partner.
All of the above

4 Autonomy, relatedness and competence are needs that are required to be fulfilled in order for an individual to be intrinsically motivation?


References[edit | edit source]

Anderson, E., Moss., (2011). Imagery and implementation intention: A randomised controlled trial of intervention to increase exercise behaviour in the general population. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 12. 63-70.

Baghurst, T., Bradford, S., Mulekar, M., (2012). The Effect of Feedback on Goal Setting and Performance in a Pushup Task. TAHERD Journal, 80(2), 8-13

Department of Health,. (n.d) Australia’s Physical activity and sedentary behaviour Guidelines: Adults [Brochure]. Canberra, Australia, Australian Government.

Edmunds, J., Ntoumanis, N., Duda, J., (2007). Intrinsic Motivation and Self Determination. In M. Hagger, N. Chatzisarantis (Ed.), Lower Mitcham: SA, Human Kinetics

Giacobbi, P., Dreisbach, K., Thurlow, N., Anand, P., & Garcia, F. (2014). Mental Imagery increases self-determined motivation to exercise with university enrolled women: A randomised controlled trial using a peer-based intervention. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15, 374-381

Giacobbi, p., Hausenblas, H., Fallon, E., & Hall, C. (2003). Even More About Exercise Imagery: A Grounded Theory of Exercise Imagery. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 160-175.

Magaraggia, C., Dimmick, J., & Jackson, B. (2014) Motivational priming as a strategy for maximising exercise outcomes: effects on exercise goals and engagement. Journal of Sport Science, 32(9), 826-835.

Moustaka, Vlachopoulis, Kabitsis, Theodorakis (2012) Effects of an autonomy-supportive exercise instuctiong style on exercise motivation, psychological well-being and exercise attendance in middle-age women. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 9, 138-150

Nielsen, G., Wikman, J., Jensen, C., Schmidt, J., Gliemann, L., Andersen, T. (2014) Health Promotion: The Impact of beliefs of health benefits, social relation and enjoyment on exercise continuation. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sorts, 24, 66-75

Pauline, J. (2013) Physical activity behaviours, motivation and self-efficacy among college students. College Student Journal, 47(1), 64-74

Roberts, G., (2001). Advances in Motivation in Sport and Exercise. Lower Mitcham: SA, Human Kinetics

Ryan and Deci (2007). Intrinsic Motivation and Self Determination. In M. Hagger, N. Chatzisarantis (Ed.), Lower Mitcham: SA, Human Kinetics

Scarapicchia, T., Sabastion, C., Andersen, R., Bengoechea, E., (2013). The Motivational Effects of Social Contagion on Exercise Participation in Young Female Adults. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35, 563-575

Weinberg, R., Gould, D., (2011). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Lower Mitcham, SA:Human Kinetics

External links[edit | edit source]