Monday, 16 August 2010

Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation for exercise

OK, so when was the last time you saw a public health campaign which tried to increase physical activity levels by targeting intrinsic motivations to exercise? I personally cant think of any I've seen!  Motivation for exercise can be defined as intrinsic or extrinsic.  Intrinsic motivations for exercise are behaviours that are performed for the satisfaction gained in the activity itself.  Deci and Ryan (1985) argue that intrinsic motivations are commonly those of competency, interest and enjoyment.  I exercise because it makes me feel good and I enjoy it, however most campaigns to increase PA are of the loose weight and keep healthy variety.   Deci and Ryan (2000) identified that activities which are pursued primarily for being enjoyable and interesting are known to be intrinsically motivating the reward is taking part in the activity itself!

 Extrinsic motivations for exercise include are those behaviours which are performed rewards that are external.  This would include outcomes such as getting fitter, improving appearance, weight loss or ‘toning up’.  This is taking part in an activity for reasons other than the activity itself (Taylor, Ntoumanis, Standage & Spray, 2010).  This where almost all public campaigns to increase physical activity are targeted with limited success.   Ryan et al., (1997) examined exercise adherence with regard to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Although motivation to exercise includes both intrinsic and extrinsic elements Ryan et al., (1997) reported that body related (extrinsic) motivations were negatively related to hours per week exercise participation and workout length, whereas enjoyment and competence were positively to these measures.  It would appear that intrinsic motivation is a requirement of continued exercise adherence and may become even more important as the timeframe of the adherence behaviour continues.  Even motivations for PA such as aiming to lead a healthy lifestyle would be viewed as extrinsic as they are being pursued for reasons other than performing the activity itself.  This is important as the public messages to encourage the uptake of physical activity and exercise are generally aimed at extrinsic motivators, i.e. weight loss, to improve body image and to improve health status.  Very few public health messages try to convince the audience that physical activity is fun and perhaps an end in itself.  Sports participation has been shown to be more likely to be motivated by intrinsic motivators such as fun and enjoyment, whereas exercise is more often linked to extrinsic motivators such as weight loss, appearance and stress management and that this difference leads to different rates of adherence (Kilpatrick et al., 2005).  Most participants in sport and exercise are likely to be motivated both intrinsically and extrinsically to a greater or lesser degree.  Researchers argue that for long term adherence extrinsic motive must be replaced by intrinsic motives i.e. enjoyment and competency or individuals are unlikely to persist in behaviour (Brawley & Vallerand, 1984: Wankel, 1993).   Many exercise interventions appear to attempt to engage individuals only at a level which appeals to extrinsic motives only such as improving fitness or appearance; this in light of the previous research has implications the success of campaigns tartgeting only intrinsic motivations for exercise. 

Ryan, R., Frederick, C., Lepes, D., Rubio, N., & Sheldon, K. (1997). Intrinsic motivation and exercise adherence. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 28, 335-354.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Taylor IM, Ntoumanis N, Standage M, & Spray CM (2010). Motivational predictors of physical education students' effort, exercise intentions, and leisure-time physical activity: a multilevel linear growth analysis. Journal of sport & exercise psychology, 32 (1), 99-120 PMID: 20167954


  1. Has anybody published anything giving ideas to move from being extrinsically motivated to intrinsically motivated?

  2. I've learned that I need to make exercise fun and thats what motivates me to do it - so I guess you would call that intrinsic motivation. I made it a mission to find all the physical activity and exercises that I personally find fun to do so that losing weight isn't a chore anymore. I don't like running on the treadmill so I don't so that anymore. I like jumping on a mini trampoline so I do that. I don't like going to the gym so I don't I like swimming so I swim everyday now. It has to be something you find personally satisfying.

  3. @anonymous I'd be interested in this sort of study also. It would be great if research did discover a way to move from being motivated extrinsically to intrinsically.

  4. @anonymous and Needak Rebounders... there are a few studies out there that have looked at this, using a self-determination theory framework (e.g. Jolly et al, 2011; Edmunds, Ntoumanis and Duda, 2006, 2008). They use an 'autonomy support' intervention which effectively empowers people to devise their own set of goals and internalise exercise behaviour by involving them at every stage of exercise programme development. It's quite difficult to reach the ideal endpoint of getting people to actually enjoy exercise, but at the very least it's possible to get them to internalise and integrate physical activity into their behaviours and values, which in turn should lead to increased persistence in exercise.