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What motivates people to exercise (and other forms of physical activity)?

Jogger running on stairs, sports training

Have you ever wondered why some weight loss clients are more motivated to exercise than others? Recent research published in the Recreational Sports Journal unpacks the psychological concept of motivation as it relates to physical activity.

Benefits of physical activity
Physical activity has many demonstrated benefits – decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer; increased muscle mass and reduced likelihood of physical injury. But even though people know that physical activity is good for them, this knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into active participation.

When it comes to exercise, there are two types of motivation
Motivation to exercise can be split into two different types: intrinsic motivation – where a person is personally satisfied as a result of performing the behaviour, and extrinsic motivation – where a person performs a behaviour because of the external rewards, such as changed appearance, or a changed perception by others. Motivation is a complex psychological topic: what’s important to keep in mind is that when a person is motivated, they feel a clear intention to do something.

The difference between sport, exercise, and recreation
Sport, exercise and recreation are often used interchangeably, but for this study, the authors distinguished between them, noting that each of these terms falls within the broader umbrella of physical activity.
Exercise is defined as planned, structured, and repetitive activity with the goal of physical improvement (examples include running or weight training);
Sport is defined as organised physical activities (as an individual, or in a team) as part of a competition (examples include golf, basketball, tennis);
Recreation is defined as physical activity for pleasure conducted during leisure time with little or no competition. (Examples include walking, gardening, or fishing).
Researchers were curious to find out if people who partook in a particular type of physical activity (such as sport) were motivated differently to their peers who engaged in other physical activity (such as exercise, or recreation).

Study design
443 people (students and staff from a university) participated in the study, which was sent as a survey via email.
Physical activity for each person was assessed using the International Physical Activity Questionnaire (IPAQ). The IPAQ included seven questions to analyse physical activity over the most recent seven days.
Motivation was established using the Exercise Motivation Inventory (EMI-2) which establishes individual contributors to motivation including stress management, revitalisation, enjoyment, challenge, social recognition, affiliation, competition, health pressures, avoidance of poor health, positive health, weight management, appearance, strength and endurance, and nimbleness.

61.4% of participants described their primary physical activity as exercise, 12.4% described their primary physical activity as sport, 18.3% described their primary physical activity as recreation and 7.9% did not indicate they participated in any of the physical activity groups listed.
People who participated primarily in sports described key motivating factors as strength and endurance, competition and enjoyment. For those whose primary physical activity was exercise or recreation, the key motivation sources were improved strength and endurance, and stress and weight management.
These results show that people who engage in exercise or recreational activities do so for different reasons to those who participate in sports. Additionally, it appears that people who participate primarily in sports do so for intrinsic reasons (for reasons of personal or internal satisfaction). In contrast, those whose primary form of physical activity is exercise or recreational activities appear to be driven more by extrinsic (external) factors.
As a weight loss consultant, understanding different motivations to participate in physical activity can help you to design a movement program that taps into the right drivers for your particular client. These insights can help you identify whether someone might be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, and to develop a strategy that best taps into their individual mindset.

Ball, J. W., Bice, M. R., & Parry, T. (2014). Adults’ Motivation for Physical Activity: Differentiating Motives for Exercise, Sport, and Recreation. Recreational Sports Journal, 38(2), 130–142.

Do you know what motivates your weight loss clients to engage in sport, exercise or recreation? Do you see differences between people in terms of the types of physical activity they prefer to engage in?

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