Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Exercise and motivation

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Exercise and motivation:
What is the effect of physical exercise on motivation?


Figure 1. Physical exercise has a number of positive benefits
What motivates you to exercise? 

Are you likely to exercise more frequently if you are able to choose when, where and what exercises you do? Does achieving your exercise goals allow you to feel competent? Do you prefer exercising more with a friend or in a group? Do you enjoy the physiological, psychological and physical rewards of exercise?

Physical activity and exercise have been used interchangeably but can have different meanings. Physical activity is identified as any bodily movement produced by a muscle that requires energy expenditure. While physical exercise is referred to as being structured and repetitive in nature with the aim to improve physical fitness (Caspersen, Powel & Christenson, 1985). Measuring energy expenditure can be done through the measurement of kilocalories. Throughout daily life, physical activity may take place in occupational or household settings, through sport or various other activities. Exercise is classified as a subcategory of physical activity, which is planned, structured and repetitive, with a final or intermediate goal. This may be the improvement or maintenance of physical fitness. Physical fitness is classified as a set of characteristics that are either health or skill related (Caspersen, Powel & Christenson, 1985). The focus throughout this book chapter will be physical exercise and it’s[grammar?] effect on motivation.

[what?]Researchers have made significant progress on the effects and importance of physical exercise on both physiological and mental health. Through regular physical exercise people can improve quality of sleep, increase cognitive function, relieve tension and reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity (Henriksson & Sunberg, 2010). These benefits should be taken seriously as between 2011 and 2012, approximately 25% of Australian children aged 5 to 17 years (24% of boys and 27% of girls) were either overweight or obese according to measured BMI. The amount of obese boys in the 5 to 12 year age group increased significantly by three percentage points to 7%, since 1995. In the 13 to 17 year female age group, there was a substantial increase in those classified as overweight (up 6 percentage points to 18%) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008). These values have substantial social and economic effects on society. In 2008, the total cost of overweight/obesity in Australia had a momentous effect on the economy. Health system costs, loss of productivity costs and carer costs were approximately $58 billion (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010). These statistics emphasize the importance of implementing physical exercise programs into our daily routines. However, many struggle to adhere to such programs, in order to do so, it is important to understand how motivation works.

Motivation to exercise[edit]

Motivation is defined as the direction and intensity of one’s effort to a specific goal or activity. The direction and intensity of effort are typically closely related. For instance, exercisers who rarely miss a training session and arrive promptly will put in a lot more effort than exercisers who miss training sessions or arrive late. Researchers are aware as to why most people participate in exercise; this is extremely valuable as experts consider motives to be essential when influencing participation and adherence (Gargalianos, Laios & Theodorakis, 2003). It has been found that children are motivated to participate in exercise/sport in order to develop skills, show competence, excitement and fun. Gill and Williams (2008) found that adult motives do not differ significantly, however, health benefits are valued more than competence and skill development (Gould & Weinberg, 2014). Specifically, Wankel discovered that adults rated improved health, weight loss, fitness, and overcoming challenges as motives to join an exercise program (Gould & Weinberg, 2014). Adhering to exercise came down to factors such as enjoyment, the organisations leadership capability (trainer/coach), the type of activity (cardio or strength), and social aspects (Glass, Grieve & Steinberg, 2001). Interestingly, it has also been found that male university students are more likely to be motivated by intrinsic factors such as strength and competition, unlike female students who are motivated by extrinsic factors like weight maintenance and appearance (Bland, Czech, Egli & Melton, 2011).

Self-determination theory[edit]

Figure 2. Self-determination theory is a prominent motivational theory

Psychologists Edward Deci and Michael Ryan,[grammar?] introduced a theory of motivation called Self-determination theory . This theory suggests that people are motivated to satisfy three innate needs – the need to feel competent (“I am fit”), autonomous, (the individual is free to participate in what ever exercise they like), and relatedness (an exerciser loves to go to the gym with their best friend) (Deci & Ryan 1985). The way in which these motives are satisfied progresses through a continuum of motivation. This continuum ranges from amotivation (no motivation) to extrinsic motivation (hoping to be more attractive to opposite sex) and finally to intrinsic motivation (genuine enjoyment of exercise and consequent benefits) (Deci & Ryan, 1985).

Intrinsic motivation is achieved when these three factors are satisfied as this theory focuses on inherent sources of motivation. Therefore when physical exercise is being incorporated into one’s lifestyle it is important it is satisfying the unique needs of the individual. Adhering to a program of physical exercise by integrating goal setting to maintain meaningful and prolonged lifestyle changes such as physiological improvements is likely to satisfy these needs (Deci, Patrick, Ryan & Williams, 2008). By fulfilling intrinsic mechanisms, adherence to a specific behaviour is much more likely to occur, this is essential for the individual to remain motivated and to engage in the activity (Deci, et al. 2008).


Extensive research suggests that systematic reinforcement techniques can successfully motivate behaviour, such as increasing physical exercise. This method stems from BF Skinner’s Operant conditioning and [missing something?] proposed this theory as an effective method to motivate behaviour. It was established that by learning how to operate on the environment a desired response could be produced (Hanley & Tiger, 2011). For instance, in order to encourage the participation of physical exercise, a reward should be given to the subject each time this behaviour is undergone, (eg. verbal praise). This is referred to as positive reinforcement, however negative reinforcement can be just as effective. This is the removal of an aversive stimulus; eg. the subject does not have to do the dishes each day they participate in physical exercise. Punishment is also an efficient way to encourage behaviour, for instance the subject must do the dishes every day they do not exercise (Hanley & Tiger, 2011).

Countless{{vague} studies from a behaviourist perspective demonstrate that this rewards system increases the prospect of the reoccurrence of the desired behaviour (Hanley & Tiger, 2011). However, the SDT would question whether this process satisfies people’s intrinsic motivation or whether it feeds the expectancy of extrinsic reward. Put simply, will people complete the behaviour to please their own personal enjoyment and interest, or will it be due to expecting a reward, eg. a student studying just to pass an exam rather than actually learning content due to a legitimate interest in the topic.

This is relevant to participation in physical exercise because if someone is simply partaking in exercise in order to be viewed as more attractive by others (extrinsic motivator), they are less likely to adhere to this behaviour and likely lose motivation over time. However, if a person is satisfying intrinsic factors such as improvements in long-term health and experiencing psychological benefits, they are much more likely to remain motivated (Deci, 1985). This will in turn have a positive affect on motivational levels and further encourage the behaviour. The rewards in themselves are enough incentive to continue the behaviour.

Ask yourself 

Are you more likely to engage in an activity if you receive a reward?

Academic performance[edit]

Figure 3. Empirical evidence suggests physical exercise has a positive result on student grades[factual?]

The notion that active students learn better is empirically reinforced and multiple researchers have established that health benefits associated with physical activity include, physical fitness (both cardiovascular and muscular), bone health, enhanced mental health and an increase in cognitive function. A study examining the effects of physical exercise on academic achievement among school children, conducted by Van (2011), found that fitness was strongly and significantly related to academic performance. Analyses were based on a sample of 254,743 individually matched standardized academic (TAKS) and fitness (FITNESSGRAM) test records of students throughout years 3 to 11, in Texas, USA. Fitness results were categorised into quintiles by age and gender and mixed effects regression models were used to compare the academic performance of the top and bottom fitness groups for each individual test (Van, 2011). Overall, cardiovascular fitness showed the strongest link with physical exercise. This link appears to be greatest in students’ aged 11-15. Cardiovascular fitness showed a dose-response relationship with academic performance independent of other external factors (Van, 2011).

Findings from Ellemberg & St-Louis-Deschenes (2010) further confirmed the effect of physical exercise on academic performance. It was discovered that children respond with greater accuracy to tasks post-physical exercise. Moderate to intense exercise has been found to increase neural focus on cognitive tasks. It was also found that children who partook in thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise cognitively beat children who watched television for the same amount of time (Ellemberg & St-Louis-Deschenes, 2010).

Think about

Do you find taking a break when studying/working improves your concentration levels?

Physiological effects on academic performance[edit]

Developments in neuroimaging have enhanced our understanding of the physiological effects physical exercise has, particularly in brain structure. Chaddock, Erickson, Hillman, Kim, Konksel, Pontifex, Prakash, Raine, VanPatter & Voss (2010) lead an investigation where fit and unfit children underwent an MRI to determine if specific structural differences may be found in the brain that convey performance on a cognitive control task. Chaddock et al., found differential results in the basal ganglia, which is involved in the process of cognition. It was found that fit children revealed greater volume in the dorsal striatum in comparison to unfit children. Chaddock et al., stated that these findings were not surprising considering the dorsal striatum manages various properties of cognition such as planning, decision-making and motivation. This research also concluded that fit children revealed higher levels of inhibitory control and higher levels of basal ganglia volume was linked to better task performance. These findings suggest that physical exercise has a significant influence on cognition and in turn academic performance throughout development. These improved performances resulting from physical exercise serves to further motivate students, as the improvements observed are the reward mechanism for the physical exercise (Chaddock, et al. 2010).

Disease prevention[edit]

As previously mentioned, physical exercise has a number of vital physiological benefits. An inactive lifestyle is a major risk factor of cardiovascular disease. Regular exercise has an extremely positive effect on many risk factors for cardiovascular such as blood pressure reduction and decreases “bad” cholesterol while increasing “good” cholesterol levels in the blood (Myers, 2003). Furthermore, in diabetics physical exercise allows the body to effectively use insulin to control glucose levels throughout the blood steam. Research by Myers, (2003) has revealed that a consistent and sufficient amount of exercise, in conjunction with other lifestyle changes (proper diet, limited alcohol intake and no smoking), can have dramatic consequences on health.

Enhancements in muscular function as well as oxygen consumption and aerobic capacity are additional benefits of physical exercise (Myers, 2003). With the improvement of oxygen use and transportation, day-to-day activities become easier to perform with less lethargy. This is particularly beneficial for individuals experiencing cardiovascular illness, who typically have lower exercise capacity than healthy individuals. Evidence also suggests that physical exercise has a positive effect on the capacity of blood vessels. This allows them to dilate in response to exercise, resulting in an increased ability to transport oxygen to muscles throughout exercise. Studies focused on muscular strength have also discovered that there is also a lower chance of developing back pain and disability in old age if exercise has been a regular practise to the individual (Myers, 2003).

These positive outcomes once again serve as positive reinforcers and motivators to continue participation in a regular exercise regime, due to the absence of ill health.

Ask yourself 

Do these health benefits motivate you to partake in frequent exercise?

Mental health[edit]


It is estimated that 45 per cent of the Australian population will suffer from a mental health condition in their lifetime. Approximately 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety (Beyond Blue, 2015). Partaking in frequent exercise is thought to alleviate the effects of mental illness by improving mood in general. Anderson, Kjellmen, Martinsen and Taube (2010) explain that physical exercise has been shown to encourage positive thoughts and emotions, increase confidence in coping as well as self-esteem. Buschkuehl, Jaeggi, Jonides, Mata & Thompson looked at how self-initiated everyday physical activity influenced levels of positive affect and negative affect in depressed persons. 53 individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder and 53 never-depressed controls participated in a seven-day experience sampling study. The participants were randomly prompted eight times per day to answer questions about their physical activity and affective state. Buschkuehl et al. found that throughout the week, both groups did not differ in the average level of physical activity and that both participants with major depressive disorder and the control group, reported higher levels of positive affect at prompts after physical activity than at prompts after sedentary periods.

Interestingly, depressed participants showed a dose-response relationship of physical activity, that is, the longer duration and higher intensity of physical activity the greater positive affect that was reported. Buschkuehl and associates concluded that physical activity did not influence negative affect in either group and that self-initiated physical activity influences positive affect in depressed patients.


Studies have also revealed that physical exercise is an effective way to combat symptoms and therefore obstacles of anxiety. The percentage of decreased anxiety symptoms through physical exercise range from 30% to 55%, in comparison to those with no participation in exercise (Herring, Lindheimer & O’Connor, 2015). According to Herring, et al. (2015) These findings are supported by cross-sectional data from extensive Norwegian (N=38,743), and British (N=9309) community samples showing anxiety symptoms are inversely associated with physical exercise. A US study (N=1793) on adults over 45 with arthritis, revealed that occurrence of anxiety symptoms was lower (26%) among patients who reported exercising 150 minutes or more on a weekly basis, in comparison to those physically inactive (43%) (Herring, et al. 2015). Cross-sectional results from a US sample (N=8098), of 15-54 year olds indicate that physical exercise combats against common anxiety disorders (social, generalized, panic) in a dose-dependent manner (Herring, et al. 2015).

Therefore, these findings indicate that a sound incentive for physical exercise is the absence of mental tension, specifically depression and anxiety. These mental health benefits reinforce participation in exercise by the absence of negative symptoms and experiences.

Think about 

Have you found exercise an effective way to relieve mental tension?

Physiological Effects on Motivation[edit]

Figure 4. The neurotransmitter "dopamine"
Figure 5. The neurotransmitter "serotonin"

Within the brain’s central nervous system there are neurotransmitters, their role is to act as chemical messengers. Four motivationally applicable neurotransmitter pathways are dopamine, (which releases positive feelings linked with reward), serotonin, (which has a strong influence on mood and emotion), norepinephrine, (a arousal and alertness regulator), and finally, endorphins (this prevents negative experiences such as pain, anxiety and fear) (Reeve, 2009). The dopamine pathway contains a boundary with the body’s muscular/motor system through the nucleus accumbens. Reeve (2009) explains that is the specific brain structure responsible for the release of locomotion associated with goal-directed behaviour. Once a dopamine release has instigated goal-directed behaviour to the rewarding event, this behaviour will continue and potentially strengthen until the goal has been achieved. Dopamine releases create positive emotions, therefore leading to improved functioning which results in increased creativity and problem solving ability. In addition to this, dopamine also activates goal-directed responses (Reeve, 2009).

Interestingly, the above neurotransmitters related to motivational levels are also activated through physical exercise. This therefore provides further evidence for the effect that physical exercise has on motivation (Craft & Perner, 2004). Craft and Perner review that a number of studies have revealed an increase in plasma endorphins post participation in exercise. Additionally, the monoamine hypothesis proposes that partaking in exercise leads to an increase in availability of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine (Craft & Perner, 2004). However, Anderson and colleagues (2010) have stated that while it has been proven that physical activity improves production and breakdown of the neurotransmitters in test animals, evidence that this is the same for humans is not yet available. Therefore, further studies should be conducted in order to confirm these findings. The neurotransmitters, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine are also said to play a vital role in increasing motivational levels (Reeve, 2009).


Statistics on Australia’s current overweight/obesity rates highlight the importance of implementing physical exercise regimes into our daily routines (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008). Physical exercise has a number of positive effects, including cognitive (academic performance, mental health), and physiological benefits (disease prevention. Motivational theories such as the SDT and operant conditioning methods provide effective measures to achieve goals, as well as modify and sustain behaviours. Individuals are more likely to remain motivated if goals, or desired behaviours [grammar?] if they satisfy intrinsic motivations (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Physiological effects on motivation are essentially very similar to what occurs through physical exercise[say what?]. This is particularly true in relation to the neurotransmitters that are activated, including dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and endorphins[explain?]. The above findings indicate that the more an individual participates in physical exercise, the more motivated they are likely to become.



Charlie determines when he will exercise each day, how long he will exercise for and what exercises he will do. This demonstrates which component of the Self-determination theory?



Motivation can be defined as which of the following?

To achieve as much as you can in all areas of life
The direction and time put into particular objectives
The direction and intensity of one's effort to a specific goal or activity
Having a strong desire to achieve a goal


An example of extrinsic motivation is which of the following?

Exercising to lower blood pressure and "bad" cholesterol levels, while increasing "good" cholesterol
To lower chances of developing back pain and disability in old age
To be viewed as attractive by others
To decrease chances of experiencing cardiovascular complications


The neurotransmitter that releases positive feelings linked with reward is which of the following?


See also[edit]


Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010, Measures of Australia's Progress, 2010 (cat. no. 1370.0) <>.

Access Economics, 2008, The Growing Cost of Obesity in 2008: Three Years On, Diabetes Australia, Canberra.

Anderson, E., Kjellman, B., Martinsen, E.W., & Taube, J. (2010). Physical Activity in the Prevention and Treatment of Disease. Professional Association for physical activity (Sweden). 325-336.

Baldwin, A.S., Kangas, J.L., Rethorst, C.D., Rosenfield., & Smits, J.J. (2015). Examining the moderating effect of depressive symptoms on the relation between exercise and self-efficacy during the initiation of regular exercise. Health Psychology, 34(5), 556-565. doi:10.1037/hea0000142

Bland, H. W., Czech, D. R., Egli, T., & Melton, B. F. (2011). Influence of age, sex, and race on college students’ exercise motivation of physical activity. Journal of American college health, 59(5), 399-406.

Caspersen, C. J., Powell, K. E., & Christenson, G. M. (1985). Physical activity, exercise, and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research. Public health reports, 100, 126. Retrieved from

Chaddock L, Erickson KI, Prakash RS, Kim JS, Voss MW, VanPatter M, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Konkel A, Hillman CH. A neuroimaging investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal volume, and memory performance in preadolescent children. Brain Research. 2010a;1358:172–183.

Craft, L. L., & Perna, F. M. (2004). The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 6(3), 104–111.

Di Domenico, S. A. (2015). Able, ready, and willing: Examining the additive and interactive effects of intelligence, conscientiousness, and autonomous motivation on undergraduate academic performance. Learning & Individual Differences, 40156-162.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Springer Science & Business Media.

Deci, E. L., Patrick, H., Ryan, R. M., & Williams, G. C. (2008). Facilitating health behaviour change and its maintenance: Interventions based on self-determination theory. European Health Psychologist, 10(1), 2-5.

Ellemberg D, St-Louis-Deschênes M. The effect of acute physical exercise on cognitive function during development. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2010;11(2):122–126.

Gargalianos, D. Laios, A., & Theodorakis, N. (2003). The Importance of Internal and External Motivating Factors in Physical Education and Sport. International Journal of Physical Education, 40(1), 21-26.

Glass, B., Grieve, F., & Steinberg, G. (2001). Achievement goals across the lifespan. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 24(3), 298-306.

Gould, D., & Weinberg, R. S. (2014). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6E. Human Kinetics.

Hanley, G.P., & Tiger, J.F. (2011). Defining and measuring behaviour. In W.W. Fisher, C.C. Piazza & H. Roane, (Eds.). Handbook of Applied Behaviour Analysis (pp. 113-131). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Henriksson & Sunberg. (2010). General effects of physical activity. Professional Association for physical activity (Sweden). 325-336.

Herring, M., Lindheimer, J., & O'Connor, P. (2015). The Effects of Exercise Training on Anxiety.American Journal Of Lifestyle Medicine, 8(8), 388 - 403. doi:DOI: 10.1177/1559827613508542

Myers, J. (2003). Exercise and cardiovascular health. American Heart Association. doi: 10.1161/01.CIR.0000048890.59383.8D

Reeve, J. (2015). Understanding motivation and emotion (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ryan, R. M., Patrick, H., Deci, E. L., & Williams, G. C. (2008). Facilitating health behaviour change and its maintenance: Interventions based on self-determination theory. European Health Psychologist, 10(1), 2-5.

Slovinec D’Angelo, M. E., Pelletier, L. G., Reid, R. D., & Huta, V. (2014). The roles of self-efficacy and motivation in the prediction of short- and long-term adherence to exercise among patients with coronary heart disease. Health Psychology, 33(11), 1344-1353. doi:10.1037/hea0000094]

The Facts. Depression and anxiety are common conditions. (2015)

VAN, D. L. (2011). Associations of Physical Fitness and Academic Performance Among Schoolchildren. Journal Of School Health, 81(12), 733-740.

External links[edit]

Ted Talk Why some people find it harder to exercise than others?