Achieving Optimal Exercise Motivation: A Self-Determination Theory Perspective

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Achieving Optimal Exercise Motivation: A Self-Determination Theory Perspective

The Self-Determination Theory is one of Psychology’s most widely recognized perspectives on motivation. It addresses what factors need to be present within an environment and a person, for them to have sustained and deep-rooted motivation for an activity. This perspective has been widely applied to the field of Exercise Motivation!


It states that in order to have optimal exercise motivation, a person needs to feel satisfied in three areas: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. Autonomy is considering one’s actions to be their own, of one’s own will and not under obligation. Competence is feeling capable and efficient at one’s ability to complete a task and to complete it well. Relatedness is feeling connected to the activity or the people and environment surrounding it; feeling a sense of belonging. You may ask, “so how can I apply this to myself?”


“How can I improve my motivation to exercise?”


In this area, along with many others, knowledge is power. It is vital to first understand which areas you are unsatisfied in. Let’s consider the areas separately:

1. Autonomy

When you exercise, do you feel like it’s your choice? Does it feel like it’s something you want to do and enjoy doing? In contrast, does it feel like something you have to do? Is it simply something you do because your doctor or spouse ordered it? Is it just a means to an end? Something uncomfortable but necessary to achieve your health goals? These questions are all addressing how you feel about why you exercise. If through your answers you noticed that your exercise habits are driven by feelings of force and pressure -whether from yourself or outside influences- it means that your autonomy needs to be addressed. (FYI: we will look at how to increase feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness, individually, in the latter part of the article).


2. Competence

When you exercise, do you feel like you know what you’re doing? Do you feel like you have a set routine or some sort of structure that will get you closer to your health goals? Do you feel somewhat confident in a gym or the environment you exercise in? Or does exercise feel like a guessing game to you? And do you sometimes feel a bit silly when you’re exercising? These questions are looking at how competent you feel in relation to exercise.  If you don’t feel competent in the gym, it won’t feel like what you’re doing is useful; this will make it very hard to stay motivated.


3. Relatedness

Do you have support from friends or family members to push you to achieve your health goals? Do you have a workout buddy or any friends/connections in the gym? Do you feel some what comfortable or at home in your exercise environment? Or have you always been taking your health and fitness journey alone. Relatedness is another key factor in enabling or hindering your motivation for exercise! Though there are some who are very self-motivated when it comes to exercise, the majority find it helpful to have some form of support.


“Okay, I see where I’m lacking… Now how do I fix it?!”


 1. Optimizing feelings of Autonomy

In order to increase feeling of autonomy for exercise, it’s important to find and choose exercise and physical activities you enjoy. This will enable exercise to increasingly become something you want to do and take pleasure in.

If you hate walking on the treadmill, try the elliptical. If you find indoor cycling boring, try cycling outside or hiking! Try out a new style of workout; try bringing music to the gym or reading a book on the seated bicycle (one of my personal favorites for a lazy day)! Decide that you’re going to find some physical activities that interest you and make an effort to allow exercise to become something you enjoy!


2. Optimizing feelings of Competence

If you’re lacking in feelings of competence in regards to exercise and feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, it is vital to connect with someone who does! This could be through working with a Personal Trainer, going to Exercise Classes or even watching exercise technique and workout videos online. The only way you’re going to feel more competent and effective in the gym, is to learn more in this area. Gaining knowledge will not only make you feel more confident and comfortable, it will also cause your workouts to be more effective and thus, take you towards your goals faster!


3. Optimizing feelings of Relatedness

In order to feel satisfied in terms of relatedness, it helps to gain some form of support or partnership in relation to your fitness goals. One very effective method is to talk to your spouse/partner or a family member about your health concerns and goals and decide to go on a journey together, to improve both of your health. Likewise, if you have a friend with a similar fitness goal, decide to exercise together and push each other to stay committed to this plan! Going to group exercises classes is a great way to meet people with similar goals and trying many different ones is excellent for improving competence -by learning new exercises- and also autonomy -by trying classes that interest you and finding some you really enjoy. Even simply making an effort to speak to the gym staff or other members of the facility is a key way to feel connected to the environment. Ultimately, it is incredibly helpful to find some support to help you reach your fitness goals, as opposed to just going it alone.


In Summary…

You have the tools to improve your exercise motivation and make working out something you enjoy and are consistent with; the key is to make the effort to work through the areas that are lacking! Here’s a simple task for you this month: Make a note of which of the three areas, Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness, you feel you’re most unsatisfied in and decide what you could do over the course of this month, to feel fulfilled in those areas.

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