Motivation and Its Role in Exercise Compliance and Retention

Most people cite lack of motivation as the number one reason why they don’t stick with or pursue exercise on a regular basis. As someone who trains people for a living, it was always interesting to me and quite the challenge learning how to motivate my various clients. And so, while I was studying for my Kinesiology degree, I chose this topic as one of my main research papers. I just wanted to share it with you so you can better understand what is personally motivating to you and so you can understand which type of motivation is most likely to help you continue to live your healthy lifestyle in the future.


Motivation and Its Role in Exercise Compliance and Retention

Megan Hawley

Michigan State University


Every day, people begin exercise regiments with the intension of becoming healthier and improving fitness. Exercise promotes a variety of health benefits, including cardiovascular health, decreases in cancer, diabetes, and heart disease rates, and joint and muscular health. There are mental health benefits as well, such as decreases in anxiety and depression and overall improvement of cognitive functioning. As the world’s population lives longer as a whole, it is important to help them improve their quality of life, and exercise is one of the best ways to do so. Unfortunately, many of these exercise plans only last a short amount of time, falling by the way side for a variety of reasons, including lack of time, loss of interest, life stressors, and finally, the loss of motivation. As Boyd states, nearly 50% of those who begin exercise will stop within six months (Boyd, 2002). Athletic trainers are familiar with the experience of their clients losing motivation at some point along their fitness journey. Some never return from this loss, others still show up to sessions but with lackluster effort and zero energy to perform, and then there are the rare few who figure out how to push through and motivate themselves once again. The purpose of this paper is to understand the underlying motivational drives that best support the continued effort and retention of exercise habits, so that athletic trainers can learn new tools to teach proper motivational skills and aid in their client’s determination to succeed. Throughout this paper, two main types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic, and their subcategories will be introduced. The reasons why intrinsic motivation allows people to persist in their efforts will be discussed, but also how other types of motivation can help people at different stages of their fitness journey. From this, trainers can determine what skills should be used to implement behavioral changes, leading to adherence and better overall health.

Types of Motivation

Ryan and Deci introduced self-determination theory in 1985, and it delves into the realm of motivation. They claimed that there were two different types of motivation, autonomous and controlled. Autonomous motivation is a “self-endorsing” action and controlled by the individual (Deci, 2008). Controlled motivation is when people feel pressured to perform certain actions that they wouldn’t choose to do themselves. From this, a scale was developed, defining the different subcategories of motivation along the controlled-autonomous spectrum.

At the start of the spectrum is amotivation. This is when individuals have no intention to perform an activity either because they don’t feel competent to perform, they don’t value the action, or because they believe their actions won’t make a difference. Following amotivation, the spectrum then begins to delve into the extrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivation is motivation that lies outside of the task itself. Ryan and Deci believed that the most controlled subcategory of extrinsic motivation was external regulation. External regulation is performing a task in order to avoid negative outcomes or to gain a reward. Introjected regulation is the next highest controlled motivation; this is when a person does something because it is expected of them or they have feelings of guilt or shame when the task is not performed.

Then we come to the middle of the scale, where motivations are still of an extrinsic nature, but they are considered autonomous. Identified regulation is the belief that a task has value and thus, it should be performed. The final extrinsic motivation subcategory is integrated regulation. This is where a task is performed because the person believes it to be a part of themselves and their personality. At the top of the autonomous scale is intrinsic motivation. Here, people enjoy the task for what it is. There are three main forms of intrinsic motivation: to experience sensations, to learn, and to accomplish (Mcdonough, 2010).

Intrinsic Motivation

Ryan and Deci’s theory can be applied to many types of tasks, including physical activity. In their study, they present the idea that autonomous motivation leads to greater psychological and physiological health and long-term persistence at said task. It also leads to mindfulness (open awareness to what’s around oneself), vitality (energy that is empowering), and optimism (positivity of mind), all of which are greatly beneficial to the improvement of quality of life (Deci, 2008). Because humans naturally desire to learn, explore, and experience, intrinsic motivation is self-propelling and leads to ingrained habits. Intrinsic goals, such as personal development and affiliation, are also associated with better well-being, whereas extrinsic goals, such as attractiveness or fame, provide little internal satisfaction in the long run (Deci, 2008). Thus, it would seem that as athletic trainers, helping our clients to develop intrinsic motivation for exercise is the ultimate goal.

This has been supported in a large variety of scientific literature. In a study done by Kuroda, he takes the transtheorectical model and applies it to exercise. Here, there are five stages: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. In precontemplation, the subject has no desire or thoughts of beginning to participate in exercise. When they do begin to think about incorporating exercise into their lives, they have reached the contemplation stage, but still no action has taken place. In preparation, the subject may workout intermittently, but it is not a permanent aspect of their lifestyle. Once they have implemented exercise as a weekly habit, they find themselves in the action phase. And finally, once that habit has been continued for six months without disruption, they are considered to be in the maintenance stage. Intrinsic motivation is found to be highest in the maintenance stage, where people can focus on enjoying their developed habit for what it is alone (Kuroda, 2012). Because the maintenance stage is what our clients should strive for, it would make sense to also aim to increase intrinsic motivation by finding activities or types of exercise that a client enjoys.

Other studies have found that intrinsic motivation allows for a person to make exercise part of their lifestyle, a way to make being active a “persistent change” (Slovenic D’Angelo, 2014). Exercise frequency is also determined by intrinsic motivation (Duncan, 2010) and highly correlated to well-being (Ferrand, 2014). Thus, intrinsic motivation is believed to be the most effective and permanent way to implement healthy change.

Extrinsic Motivation

However, many studies have proved that other types of motivation are key components during certain phases of implementing an exercise plan. As one study succinctly put, “well-internalized extrinsic motives” are just as useful to change when the task is “not inherently self-rewarding” (Wilson, 2008), meaning that when a client does not enjoy exercise, they can develop other reasons than enjoyment to continue pursing it. Extrinsic motivation, or more specifically, external regulation, is important during the first stages of contemplation of exercise because people must want to improve their body composition or fitness levels in order to make changes (Kuroda, 2012). Thus, activities that aren’t enjoyable by themselves, such as when a person first begins to exercise, may benefit from higher levels of extrinsic motivation or else the task will not be performed at all. Exercise also tends to be more extrinsically focused than participation in sport due to the fact that people usually choose a sport because it is an activity they enjoy versus a habit that is healthy. Unfortunately, extrinsic rewards tend to undermine intrinsic motivation, and should thus be used sparingly (Deci, 2000).

Introjected regulation on the other hand is more beneficial to keep those who are ego-driven in the habit of exercising. Thus, exercise is performed to increase self-worth. Introjected regulation has been found to be a positive predictor in intensity for college-age females, suggesting pride in their workout habits or shame if they are not completed (Duncan, 2010). This is thought to be because of the emphasis placed on adolescent women to fit a certain body standard, and thus, performing at higher intensities, they are likely to burn more calories and lose more weight. Their self-esteem is often based on their ability to outperform or look better than others. Unfortunately, women who are motivated in this way report that they do not enjoy the exercises they perform and long-term adherence is low (Duncan, 2010), especially when low perceived ability comes into play (Boyd, 2002). It has also been shown that this type of motivation causes negative mental health, such as increased anxiety (Deci, 2000). Thus, once the preparation stage has been completed, trainers should look to help their client change from introjected regulation to a more autonomous motivation.

Some extrinsic motivations are more beneficial than others, such as identified regulation and integrated regulation. With these, one begins to choose to perform a task based on the idea of bettering themselves in the future rather than to avoid negatives or gain positives. Identified regulation is highly correlated to the higher stages of exercise behavior, such as action and maintenance (Kuroda, 2012) because clients have the belief that exercise is important to their health. It is also considered the strongest predictor of exercise intensity (Duncan, 2010) and the strongest predictor of maintaining exercise habits (Ferrand, 2014).

Identified regulation has a collinear relationship with integrated regulation, suggesting that those who believe an activity has value, also tend to incorporate that activity into their personal identity (Duncan, 2010). This is a major step, as once a client believes exercise to be a beneficial habit, they can begin to ingrain that ideal into their personality, leading to a long-term relationship with it. Integrated regulation was found to be the strongest predictor of exercise frequency and also the strongest predictor of duration for females (Duncan, 2010).

In conclusion, it is important to understand the roles that these types of motivations play along the timeline of exercise behavior. People may become involved in an activity primarily for extrinsic reasons, and once they progress along the autonomous spectrum, they may shift to a more intrinsic outlook. This process can also be reversed. Sometimes people may lose their intrinsic motivation for physical activity if it becomes too predictable or stagnant. They may then choose to focus on their more external motivations in order to stay active until they once again rediscover intrinsic values.

Motivational Strategies

Once these studies made it clear how the types of motivation played into the adherence of an exercise regime, it was time to understand how trainers could use this information to better aid their clients. The first major step was considering the differences in motivation that come with age, culture, gender, and health state. With gender, females tend to have more intrinsic motivation than males who are more externally driven (Duncan, 2010). This is because males thrive in situations that are associated with competition, challenge, and social recognition (Kilpatrick, 2005). From this, we can assume that physical activity for males should have some aspects of contest in order to keep them inspired and interested. On the other hand, as mentioned above, women tend to depend too highly on introjected regulation and their habits of shame or pride when comparing themselves to others, and thus, rivalry should be downplayed more in order to increase enjoyment for females.

When it comes to aging, many older adults choose to start or continue exercising because of the belief that exercise will benefit their quality of life. In a study of 100 French participants with a mean age of 75 years, there was found to be two types of groups: the “highly self-determined group” and the “moderately introjected group” (Ferrand, 2014). They were all highly-active individuals, but those who were in the highly self-determined group, those who had more identified and integrated regulation, had greater frequency and longer duration of exercise habits than those of the moderately introjected group. While this finding is consistent with all other age groups, it is especially important for athletic trainers to understand the need to help their elderly clients become more autonomously motivated. This is because the study also showed that those in the HSD group had greater values in all domains of quality of life than the MI group (Ferrand, 2014). Elderly adults with higher quality of life tend to live longer and have better physical and mental health. While activity increases slightly with retirement age, within a few years, activity levels are the lowest during the life cycle (Ferrand, 2014), so it is important to grasp what is needed in order to keep older generations in good health and promote continuance of physical activity.

Introjected regulation also seems to have a role in different cultures. In Kuroda’s study of 385 Japanese participants, introjected regulation was positively correlated to exercise frequency. This was thought to be due to the culture of conformity in Japanese society (Kuroda, 2012). Many of the participants cited shame when choosing not to perform healthy habits, and so it may be an important step in the contemplation stage of some races in order to get them started.

Finally, those with impaired health states may need more help focusing on improving intrinsic motivation than most. In a study with 801 patients with CHD, most had high levels of external motivation to exercise (Slovenic D’Angelo, 2014). This was because they understood the benefits of losing weight and improving cardiovascular fitness in order to improve their condition. However, even with this knowledge, less then half of CHD patients get recommended levels of exercise (Solvenic D’Angelo, 2014). Unfortunately, it seems that in these situations external motivation is not enough to make a permanent lifestyle change, and trainers should focus on finding physical activities that these clients will enjoy and internalize.

This leads us to the question, what types of exercise do the majority of people enjoy? The finding is that physical activity that is “challenging, interesting, and provides satisfaction” leads to higher levels of intrinsic motivation (Boyd, 2002). In one study, 66 inactive, overweight women were put into a 12-week dragon boat (22 person canoe) study versus a control condition exercise group. Physical activity greatly increased with the dragon boat group, and when interviewed, the women claimed it was because of the novel experience (Mcdonough, 2010). The desire to experience something new, along with gained competence of performing the exercise and the social atmosphere, greatly improved intrinsic motivation to exercise. Specifically, the intrinsic motivation to experience sensations was the biggest difference between the control group and the dragon boat group, and it stayed higher even at the three month follow up (Mcdonough, 2010).

Other studies question whether sport or traditional exercise is better for long-term perseverance and health. As talked about above, men traditionally enjoy sport more than exercise due to the challenge and competition associated with it. In a study by Kilpatrick, sport had higher levels of overall motivation to continue, suggesting that sport is often pursued for its intrinsic value, leading to higher adherence rates. However, in the same study, exercise was correlated with greater frequency, intensity, and more improvements in “appearance, strength and endurance, stress management, and weight management” (Kilpatrick, 2005). Because of the benefits of both types of exercise, a mix of the two would suit the majority of people, and as choice in activity improves intrinsic motivation (Duncan, 2010), it would be favorable for a trainer to ask their client which they feel would be better suited to their preferences and needs.

All clients have a need for competence, relatedness, and autonomy; these constructs are universal (Deci, 2008). Self-efficacy, one’s confidence that they can complete a certain task, promotes all three of these feelings, and it is an important factor in the initiation of exercise habits. A study by Slovenic D’Angelo showed self-efficacy to be a predictor for exercise continuation at six months and that participants were more likely to stick with exercise they had a high self-efficacy towards (Slovenic D’Angelo, 2014). Autonomous forms of motivation increase self-efficacy over time, whereas controlling motivation lessens it. Mean self-efficacy also gradually increases as clients move along the transtheoretical model (Kuroda, 2012), and thus, encouraging multiple attempts at an exercise, even if disliked in the beginning, may improve satisfaction through increasing competence and understanding. Autonomy and competence are both positive predictors for intrinsic motivation (Wilson, 2008). Using this information, trainers should always give constructive feedback to a client when performing an exercise so that through learning what muscles it works, the benefits of performing it, and the proper form, it will lead to feelings of mastery and higher levels of intrinsic motivation.

Perfecting the way a trainer gives feedback is just as necessary because intrinsic motivation is improved by positive reinforcement and lessened by negative reinforcement (Deci, 2008). By encouraging, correcting the deficiency, and also complimenting the changes made, the client gains trust and respect for the “authority figure” (Wilson, 2008). Trainers should also listen empathetically, offer “meaningful rationale” for tasks, and recognize a client’s compliance and perseverance (Wilson, 2008).

It is also imperative to understand when these qualities are needed the most during a client’s journey. In many studies, there seems to be a lessening in motivation and enjoyment during the action stage of the transtheoretical model, in comparison to both the preparation and maintenance stages (Kuroda, 2012). This possible barrier to making a habit permanent can be avoided by giving clients the extra attention and support needed during this time to succeed. This can be done by asking them to complete an activity log to track their exercise habits, by holding them accountable for attendance and improvement, and also being an empathetic listener during times of struggle.

Finally, motivational interviewing is an important process that should not be skipped over when first meeting a new client. This technique allows a trainer to understand where a client’s motivation stems from and can aid in setting realistic goals and changing behaviors (Slovenic D’Angelo, 2014). Typically, there are two different types of clients, those who are task-oriented and those who are ego-oriented. Those who are task-oriented focus on the ability to master skills in order to achieve competence, whereas those who are ego-oriented believe competence comes from the demonstration of “superior ability” (Boyd, 2002). Ego orientation has a negative correlation with intrinsic motivation, and those with low ability are often discouraged when they begin to compare themselves to others (Boyd, 2002). They also are more likely to blame others for their failures (Duncan, 2010). Instead, trainers should focus on shifting their clients toward task-orientation; this promotes greater satisfaction in exercise and lower levels of anxiety (Boyd, 2002). Thus, goal setting should focus on the client’s self-improvement rather than norm-reference standards. It can also help clients to begin to think of themselves as exercisers, incorporating more integrated regulation into their motivational mindset. This can be done by persuading them to tell others about their new exercise habits, encouraging them to purchase higher-quality exercise gear to feel the part, and prompting them to find a community of peers who share the same goals.

Future Studies

When it comes to future studies that should be performed in order to fully round out the information already gathered, researchers should begin by better globally defining what they consider “physically active”. Unfortunately, throughout these studies, there was conflicting thought on frequency and duration of exercise and what parameters made someone part of the physically active group. This ranged from thirty minutes of activity two days a week, to sixty minutes of exercise daily, and having a range this large could definitely skew data.

Along these lines, there was also not a clear definition of vigorous versus moderate exercise, and many studies did not define the type of exercise their participants chose. For future studies, it would be important to understand the different effects vigorous verses moderate exercise have on motivation and if one tends to lead to better compliance over another.

Throughout these studies, there were over twenty-five different types of questionnaires used to gather data. With so many variations of the same type of motivational questions, they should reassess the reliability and validity of each and narrow it down to the best ones in order to produce the most accurate data. For example, the Motivation for Physical Activity Measure only covers three possible factors for motivation, whereas the Exercise Motivation Inventory-2 is comprised of fourteen factors (Kilpatrick, 2005). This more specific and in-depth version would help researchers get at the root of motivation and should be implemented across all research studies of this nature. Furthermore, every study used questionnaires to understand the participants’ motivation, which can lead to a lot of self-reported bias. Perhaps in the future, choosing to pair this with motivational interviewing and observation would help balance the data and eliminate this problem.

There are two specific studies that would greatly contribute to our full understanding of how motivation shifts along the controlled-autonomous spectrum. First would be a longitudinal study of participants that tracked shifts in motivation as people age. By having them complete an activity frequency, intensity, and duration questionnaire and an exercise motivation questionnaire once a year for fifty years, from age 15-65, you could gather data from adolescence all the way to retirement age. This would greatly help researchers and trainers alike understand the needs through a person’s lifespan and how to better aid them along their fitness journey during the different stages.

The other study that should be performed is how extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. As talked about by Ryan and Deci, they believe that things such as sport scholarships or prizes for losing weight take away the desire for doing activities for intrinsic value. For this study, participants would be put in a twelve-week exercise program; half would be in a control group, and the other half would receive gifts at weight loss benchmarks. At weeks zero, six, and twelve, participants would then take a motivational questionnaire, and researchers could better understand this phenomenon.


Motivation is a very complex construct of the human psyche, and everyone experiences all the stages of the controlling-autonomous spectrum at some point in their lives. When it comes to physical activity, it is vitally important to understand where a client gleans their motivation from in order to effect change in their habits. From research, we have learned that finding activities that promote intrinsic motivation are the most successful for exercise retention. By increasing competency, autonomy, and self-efficacy, we can improve the likelihood that a client will integrate exercise habits into their lifestyle. During times when intrinsic motivation may be lacking, understanding how to incorporate the more autonomous forms of extrinsic motivation is imperative to avoid termination of healthy behaviors. Through motivational interviewing and continual support, trainers will have an effective and positive strategy to guide their clients to success.


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Duncan, L. R., Hall, C. R., Wilson, P. M., & Jenny, O. (2010). Exercise motivation: A cross-sectional analysis examining its relationships with frequency, intensity, and duration of exercise. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 7, 7. doi:

Ferrand, C., Martinent, G., & Bonnefoy, M. (2014). Exploring motivation for exercise and its relationship with health-related quality of life in adults aged 70 years and older. Ageing and Society, 34(3), 411-427. doi:

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McDonough, M. H., Sabiston, C. M., Sedgwick, W. A., & Crocker, P. R. E. (2010). Changes in intrinsic motivation and physical activity among overweight women in a 12-week dragon boat exercise intervention study. Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, 19(1), 33-46. Retrieved from

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(3), 182-185. doi:

Kilpatrick, M., Hebert, E., & Bartholomew, J. (2005). College students’ motivation for physical activity: Differentiating men’s and women’s motives for sport participation and exercise. Journal of American College Health, 54(2), 87-94. Retrieved from

Wilson, P. M., Mack, D. E., & Grattan, K. P. (2008). Understanding motivation for exercise: A self-determination theory perspective. Canadian Psychology, 49(3), 250-256. Retrieved from

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