The world has effectively ground to a halt in a bid to contain the spread of Covid-19, disrupting our usual way of life. We are all getting used to a different way of living, and in light of the closure of all gyms and restrictions on group gatherings, this includes our exercise behaviours.
This poses not only a logistical challenge to our training routines and habits, but also a psychological one. For many, exercise is a social activity, and is rarely a solely individual pursuit. We go to gyms and fitness classes, we meet up with walking groups, or are members of athletic or sports teams. And for good reason. Relatedness, or perception of personal connection with others, is a highly motivating factor to sustaining behaviour. For those in sport, the health benefits are often more of a by-product of training rather than a goal in and of itself. And there-in lies the challenge. What happens when we remove that this supportive environment that many rely on? The answer in part, will depend on what motivates people to exercise in the first place.
Motivation can be defined as the degree of determination, drive, or desire with which an individual approaches or avoids behaviour (1), and it is an extensively researched topic in the field of sport and exercise psychology.
We can explore what motivates people to exercise engagement by looking at the goals on which individuals focus their efforts. Self-determination theory, a framework which helps us understand the elements of human motivation, distinguishes goals based on their intrinsic or extrinsic content. Intrinsic motivation refers to taking part in activity for reasons that are inherently satisfying to the person; the experience of enjoyment, excitement, or personal accomplishment (3). Intrinsic goals are focused on developing one’s personal interests and values, relating to a person’s sense of self. In relation to exercise this may include enhancing feelings of self-worth, personal challenge, or mood-enhancement.
Extrinsic motivation is that which comes from obtaining some outcome separable to the activity itself per se, with one’s pursuits being directed towards external indicators of worth. For example, when someone engages in an activity to gain a tangible or social reward, they are extrinsically motivated. E.g. Appearance, status, conformity, avoiding disapproval.
Within self-determination theory, motivation is further distinguished by the behavioral regulation with which goals are pursued. Autonomous motivation stems from inherent satisfaction that a behaviour brings from aligning one’s actions with other aspect of self, or from personally valuing the behavior. Controlled motivation, on the other hand, reflects behavioral enactment for purposes of attaining ego enhancement, to suppress feelings of guilt and anxiety, or to comply with external pressuring demands (4). For example, people who go to the gym as a result of controlled motivation, do so out of a feeling that they “have to”, as opposed to truly “wanting to” participate. It is a means to an end.
So, intrinsic and extrinsic goals can be pursued for autonomous or controlled reasons. This makes more sense when we illustrate the distinction with an example. Sinéad goes to the circuit class each week to improve her health (intrinsic goal), because she personally values good health (autonomous motivation). Ciara goes along with her, also to improve her health (intrinsic goal), because her doctor told her she needs to get her blood pressure down (controlled motivation). In another example, Cian goes to the gym to put on muscle and look big (extrinsic goal), because he personally values his appearance (autonomous motivation). Séamus also goes to the gym to put on muscle and look big (extrinsic goal), because his girlfriend was mocking his physique (controlled motivation).
The research tells us that placing greater importance on intrinsic goals is positively associated with exercise engagement, relative to extrinsic goals. While the relatively intrinsic and extrinsic goal-oriented individuals may engage in exercise to a quantitatively similar degree, it is possible that the same engagement might be associated with more feelings of anxiety and negative affect rather than a positive affect. While controlled forms of extrinsic motivation can sometimes motivate short-term behaviour, it is unlikely to foster long-term maintenance. I recall a billboard advertisement in the London Underground during the 2016 Olympics, with a quote from a GB Athlete: I train because I love my body, not because I hate it.
In reality, we are motivated by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic goals, to greater or lesser degrees of autonomy. I enjoy going to the gym and, and value the health benefits. As a strength and conditioning coach, I value the capacity to actually do the programs myself that I prescribe for others, and to maintain the training discipline that I expect from my athletes. And to be fair, I do like being in good shape for appearance reasons also. In my case, these goals are autonomous. Since finishing up competing in hurling, nobody is telling me I have to train, and I’m not training toward the collective performance or outcome goals of a team. I train for myself.
We watch our top sportsmen and women on TV and hold them up as pinnacle of health. They are lean, athletic, fit. They put in long, hard hours of training, to get into the shape they need to be to perform their best. But, somewhat paradoxically, outside of training for their sport, many athletes are as sedentary as the rest of society. Their goals might be intrinsically driven, but the degree of controlled motivation is greater than autonomous motivation. They train hard for the team, because the coach is there driving on the session, or to get the best out of themselves in upcoming games.
We have all seen examples of professional athletes who were in peak condition during their sporting careers, but spiralled out of shape upon retirement. No doubt, the psychological distress caused by a loss of their athletic identity may contribute to this. It may also be the case that their motivation to train was very much driven by extrinsic goals of sporting success, and the controlled regulation of the team environment. They retire, and suddenly, they don’t have to train, so they don’t.
And now back to the challenge that athletes and teams are facing in the current situation. There is no team training, no collective gym sessions, and there is uncertainty about when competitive fixtures will re-commence. An athlete over-reliant on extrinsic goals based around future competitive performance could be be feeling discouraged to keep training, sure what’s the point? Even an athlete that has intrinsically-oriented goals, might be struggling without the controlled motivation that they are used to fuelling their efforts in training.
Ask yourself where you lie on this continuum of motivation. Why do you train? Do you inherently look forward to training, or do you tolerate it? Are your training goals intrinsically or extrinsically-oriented? Is it a reflection of your personal values system? The research is consistent with the following points:
- Well-internalized extrinsic motivation is important to getting you going (by valuing a certain outcome of the exercise behaviour)
- Intrinsic motivation (valuing the actual experience of exercise) is particularly important for longer-term exercise participation.
- High autonomous motivation is needed to support and sustain exercise behaviour over time.
Beyond the issue of actually getting your gear on and going training while in isolation, self-determination theory tells us that there are potentially harmful psychological consequences for those whose exercise behaviours are motivated by negative self-image. In this case, the negative impact on ones self-esteem, and symptoms of anxiety, could outweigh the physical benefits of the exercise behaviour. This speaks to the culture of body shaming people into exercise, which is not only morally reprehensible but harmful. That’s a post for another day.
So here’s the point. We live in uncertain times, without knowing when we’ll be back training with the team. We don’t know when we will be back playing our sports. And one could easily find themselves in despair, wondering why we bother train at all when the world is seemingly falling down around us.
I think it is worth taking the time to reflect on your training motivation, and to connect with the intrinsic rewards of physical training. I used to love hurling, but I can’t say I enjoyed the hard running training, and I didn’t really enjoy going to the gym. But, over the past few years, I have grown to enjoy it. And on days where I’m not really feeling up to it, I get it done because it aligns with my personal values. I know that, ultimately, I feel better for it and appreciate the health benefits.
For athletes who usually depend on their sport to motivate them to get through the physical training, now is a good time to focus on the intrinsic rewards of the activity. Our perception of hard exercise is just a matter of programming. We can rewire our brains to enjoy the feeling of lifting something heavy, of being out of breath, or the burning sensation in your muscles. Tune in to the the sensory experience of exercise, and connect the physical effort to your core values. Training then, rather than being a daily grind, will become a part of the day to look forward to.
- Lox, C., K. Martin, and S. Petruzzello. The Psychology of Exercise: Integrating Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Scottsdale: Holocomb Hathaway, 2006
- Ireland Physical Activity Factsheet, WHO. http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/288112/IRELAND-Physical-Activity-Factsheet.pdf?ua=1
- Teixeira, P.J, Carraca, E.V, Markland, D, Silva M.N, Ryan R.M: Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 2012, 9:78
- Sebire, S.J, Standage, M, Vansteenkiste, M: Examining Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Exercise Goals: Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Outcomes, Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2009, 31:189-210