Have you ever looked at Men's Health magazine? The name is innocuous enough but this comes close to being the men's version of Cosmo. Who knew? But there it was beckoning to me from the magazine strewn table in my massage therapist's office the other day, looking all shiny and new amongst the Reader's Digests and MacCall's from last century. Flipping through it I stumbled on an interesting article about motivation. It bolstered some of the things I've already written about around intrinsic motivation but adds a concept called "identified" motivation. This is all culled from self-determination theory (SDT), which has it's roots at the University of Rochester.
Proponents of SDT have conducted numerous studies on exercise adherence over the years, and the results are remarkably consistent: The less intrinsic your motivation for exercising is -- that is, the more you are working out because you think you should and not because you really enjoy it -- the less likely you are to stick with it.
In a 2004 study published in the International Journal of Sport and Health Science, researchers classified 486 exercisers on a motivation scale. This included people who were intrinsically motivated to exercise -- they did it because it was fun -- and those given some outside motivation to start moving. The results: Six months into the study, the intrinsically motivated people who were still exercising outnumbered their externally prodded peers three to one.
And other motivators you'd think would work, don't. Studies have found that those who exercise to keep their doctors happy tend not to stick with it. Sweating solely to be more physically attractive to others loses, too: In a 1997 study, Ryan and others found that those who signed up for an exercise class for vanity reasons were less likely to attend than those who signed up for fitness reasons.
Indeed, the only thing that comes close to matching pure intrinsic motivation when it comes to perseverance is what SDT researchers call "identified" motivation -- that is, people who have come to truly believe exercise is worth doing because it's good for you and the benefits are valuable. "Identified motivation can be nearly as powerful as intrinsic motivation," says Philip Wilson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Canada's Brock University who has researched SDT and exercise. Wilson, a former pro soccer player, has seen the phenomenon in his own life. His time in the gym these days isn't as much fun as his time playing competitive soccer, but he sticks with it. "Quite frankly, it hurts," he says. "But I do it because I value the health benefits."
The research has also highlighted three components that can help create the conditions for intrinsic motivation:
So if liking exercise is the key to sticking with it, what makes us like it? SDT researchers say you're intrinsically motivated to do an activity if it meets three basic needs. The first is autonomy -- the choice to do it was made by you, not somebody else. The second is competence -- you know what you're doing, or are at least becoming better at it. The third is relatedness -- the activity connects you in some way to other people.
And finally, discover a deeper value or a more thrilling, resonant goal when the exercise itself isn't calling to you:
But on a personal level, it's simple. If you want to stick with an exercise plan, the first step is to ask yourself why you're exercising at all. If the answer is that your girlfriend is complaining about your gut or that your doctor casually tossed out the words "headed for a coronary event," you're probably doomed to keep failing. "You have to understand why you want to do this," says Ryan. And if you don't really want to exercise at all? Latch onto an outcome you do want, be it more energy, better health, or a faster 5-K.