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How to Push Yourself to Work Out

There are five main reasons why people exercise, but they're far from equal.

Source: Stasique/Shutterstock

It’s safe to say that few adults truly enjoy exercise. Given the choice between going to the gym and going out to eat, shopping, or just sitting around the house, most people would likely skip their workout. So how can you get more pleasure out of a behavior you know is good for you? A new study by the University of Gothenburg’s Magnus Lindwall and colleagues (2016) can help you identify exercise goals and determine how to reach them.

Some people are “addicted” to exercise: No matter how early or late in the day it is, they fit a workout into their schedule. Their only complaints about exercise are that they don’t have enough time for more. Others slog through their regimes, feeling miserable until they're done and can get back to doing what they like with their time. Perhaps you’re somewhere between these extremes, sometimes enjoying exercise and sometimes hating it. Lindwall and associates believe that exercise motivation is more than an all-or-nothing psychological entity.

The Swedish team bases their approach on Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a well-accepted framework which proposes that our goals can be divided into those that are intrinsically and extrinsically controlled. When you reach your intrinsic goals, you feel validated and energized. You enjoy the activity itself, and so you aren't even aware of how much time has passed. Extrinsically controlled goals are not unique to the activity and could be achieved in a variety of ways. When your motivation is extrinsic, your focus is not on the activity, but how it can help you reach a desired outcome. In the realm of work motivation, the intrinsic and extrinsic tend to bleed into each other: Obviously, you can’t work for the sake of enjoyment alone (intrinsic); there has to be compensation (extrinsic).

SDT also discusses the sense of control people have over their behavior, and whether they feel they're in charge or are trying to satisfy someone else. Some questions to ask yourself about whether you're in control include whether, in the case of work, you can set your own time and pace: Are you able to choose how to get done what your supervisor wants out of you, or is every aspect of your work life completely regulated?

What's new about the Lindwall approach is the delineation of goals (intrinsic vs. extrinsic) and motivation (autonomous vs. controlled) as the basis for compiling profiles of individuals to characterize how they approach a task such as exercise. The researchers employed a “person-centered approach” to provide a profile of individual exercisers on goals and on how much control people felt they had over their exercise behavior.

First, they administered an exercise goal questionnaire, defining five types of goals in two broad categories. As you read each type of goal, see which best fits your own motivation to exercise:

  1. Social affiliation: You enjoy exercise because it puts you in contact with other people—fellow gym users, friends who work out, or other students in a group class.
  2. Health management: Exercise is important to you in helping you to maintain your health.
  3. Skill development: You actually like practicing the athletic abilities you use during exercise, whether it’s swimming, running, spinning, yoga, or lifting weights.
  4. Social recognition: Exercise gives you status such as when you lift the heaviest weights or stretch your limbs the farthest in a yoga class.
  5. Image: You think it looks cool to exercise, to the point where you may even wear your workout clothes around town to look like someone who values physical fitness.

The team then defined, separately from goals, the extent to which people felt they had control over their exercise behavior. In intrinsic control, people feel that exercise is truly important to them. At the opposite end of the spectrum is amotivation, where people don’t feel motivated at all. The externally controlled feel they are exercising to please someone else, such as a health-conscious partner.

Your profile as an exerciser is composed, then, of your goals (intrinsic to extrinsic) and the extent to which you feel that exercise reflects your own personal needs (degree of motivational regulation). As the authors point out, it’s the “what” and the “why” of exercise that need to be identified separately.

After testing their model on a sample of 1,084 Swedish adults (18-78 years old, 80 percent female), Lindwall and his collaborators found that, as SDT predicted, those oriented toward intrinsic goals were more likely to feel autonomously motivated, believing that exercise fulfilled needs important to them in their lives.

Looking back at the list of goals above, Goals 1-3 reflect intrinsic goals; if you’re high on these, it’s likely that exercise comes easier to you because you’re motivated to work out. Goals 4 and 5 reflect extrinsic goals, and if this is where you score highest, you will be less likely to be motivated to exercise, even to try to be admired or to keep up your image.

If you’re not inclined to exercise at all, one might argue that it’s better to begin with extrinsic goals and hope that intrinsic ones kick as you learn to like it or seek to develop your abilities. However, the study’s authors caution against this approach. Based on the profiles of their participants, it is likely that any extrinsic goals, even those added to the intrinsic ones, will lead to lower exercise motivation.

The good news: It’s OK to want to exercise for social affiliation reasons. Finding an exercise buddy or a partner on your fitness tracker team isn’t selling out on fulfilling your own personal fitness goals. The study points out that there’s no one best way to motivate everyone to exercise; as long as you’re actually trying to improve your health, skills, or friendships, exercise can become a motivationally fulfilling area of your life.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this post.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Lindwall, M., Weman-Josefsson, K., Sebire, S. J., & Standage, M. (2016). Viewing exercise goal content through a person-oriented lens: A self-determination perspective. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 2785-92. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2016.06.011

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