Intrinsic motivation describes one’s internal drive to participate, exert effort, and be persistent when engaging in an activity. Intrinsically motivated individuals partake in an activity simply due to the pleasure and satisfaction derived from the activity itself (Hunter, 2008).  Not surprising, it is a huge factor in long-term exercise program adherence. As a person who takes on clients working toward specific fitness goals, it is part of my job to keep them committed to their goals so they are successful. Cultivating a client’s intrinsic motivation is an important part of this.

Hunter (2008) identifies three facets of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy means that a client has some control over his or her workout. One way I like to give clients autonomy is by letting them choose the weight they want to lift during exercises, within my parameters (i.e., they can lift the weight with good technique, they are not risking injury, the weight corresponds to my desired intensity, etc.). I also ask clients or the kids in my group classes for feedback on exercises. For example, I’ll ask the kids if any of the exercises are too easy or too hard, or which exercise is their favorite or least favorite of the exercises in a circuit. These choices involve my clients in the decision-making aspects of their workouts while keeping them on track to meet their goals.

Competence describes a client’s belief in his or her ability to perform a task. Hunter (2008) suggests providing ample opportunities for clients to practice performing quality skills. I start many of my youth strength and conditioning classes with 5-10 minutes of jumping rope, and many kids do not do this well, at first. I provide the beginners with lots of positive feedback and encouragement in their first classes. In just a few weeks of practice, at the start of every class, kids will master the basics of jumping rope. For many, improving so much in such a short time is a big confidence booster.

Relatedness is the third component of intrinsic motivation that refers to an individual’s connection or sense of belongingness to a group (Hunter, 2008). I actually had a shocking moment yesterday when, after teaching my gym’s level 1 strength and conditioning class to two boys of similar size and age, I asked them if they knew each other’s name and neither did! A lot of kids develop relationships with the coaches at the gym, which fosters some relatedness, but I could definitely do more to develop connections between the kids in my classes.

A study by Evans, Cooke, Murray, and Wilson (2014) explored how the temporal proximity of anticipated positive outcomes affected intrinsic motivation. Proximal outcomes were defined as the benefits that occur immediately during or within a few hours of a single exercise bout, whereas distal outcomes occur after days, months or years of consistent physical activity. This study demonstrated that the intrinsic motivation of subjects with lower levels of past physical activity significantly increased when they were exposed to proximal outcomes compared to distal.

As a coach and trainer, I’ve always understood the importance of motivating others (and myself) with the positive benefits of consistent exercise, but my temporal outcome differentiation was between short-term outcomes (in the next month or two) and long-term outcomes (in 6 months to a year). The idea of focusing on immediate outcomes from single workouts is fantastic. I may not be the greatest example because I generally enjoy exercise, but reading through the list of proximal positive outcomes from the study has really motivated me to workout tonight. I may even print it out and post it by my desk. I love the idea of encouraging clients to make lists of proximal positive outcomes or reference the one from this study, and I think it could go a long way in developing intrinsic motivation with exercise.

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Previous studies have reported the effect motivational climate has on an athlete. The perception of a mastery motivational climate, emphasizing “learning, effort, improvement, and success determined by self-reference criteria,” has been demonstrated to increase intrinsic motivation (Brinkman-Majewski & Weiss, 2015).  This is opposite of a performance motivational climate, where success is determined in competition to others, leading to increased anxiety and less satisfaction (Brinkman-Majewski & Weiss, 2015). Creating mastery motivational climates with fitness clients could be done as a coach by not comparing clients to each other and highlighting personal PRs and improvements. Especially when working with kids whose sense of self is in a more formative stage, emphasizing task-involved goal orientations could increase the perception of the motivational climate, thereby influencing intrinsic motivation.


Brinkman-Majewski, R. E. & Weiss, W. M. (2015). Examination of the motivational climate in the athletic training room. Journal of Sports Behavior, 38(2), 143-160.

Evans, M. B., Cooke, L. M., Murray, R. A., & Wilson, A. E. (2014). The sooner, the better: Exercise outcome proximity and intrinsic motivation. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-being, 6 (3), 347-361. doi:10.1111/aphw.12032

Hunter, S. D. (2008). Promoting intrinsic motivation in clients. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 30(1), 52-54.


Will Power and Healthy Habits

Psychological deterrents to exercise and healthy eating adherence are of great interest to me. We’ve previously discussed that people who are more skillful may be more likely to be active, and self-efficacy research reveals that an individual’s belief in his or her ability to successfully do an activity is a large determinant of if he or she will actually do it (Clarke, 2015; Jongen et al., 2016). Other psychological factors contributing to adherence are support and willpower.

A meta-analysis by Burke, Carron, Eys, Ntoumanis, and Estabrooks (2006) demonstrated the value of contact and/or social support in exercise. The more contact and social support available, the greater the adherence was as well as the beneficial effects of the exercise (Burke et al., 2006). I believe this is the reason activities such as Crossfit and spin classes have such loyal patrons. The group or team dynamics increase members’ consistency and, therefore, their results.

Willpower, synonymous with the concepts of self-control and active volition, is another psychological component of diet and exercise adherence. The Fell article (2011) mentions that willpower is a limited resource that gets depleted throughout the day, therefore, the morning is the best time for one to make the decision to exercise. Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Tice (1998) further demonstrated that one’s willpower is limited and one’s willpower in a certain task (for example, exercise) can be depleted by unrelated acts (such as willpower at work) that share this common resource.

Willpower is important for anyone who is trying to change habits, especially those involving diet or exercise, to understand, as relying solely on will power may not be the most effective method. One of my favorite fitness bloggers, Sohee Lee, writes a lot about how willpower comes into play with diet goals. She discusses how restrained eating (when an individual must resist the urge to eat particular “forbidden” foods) draws more on one’s willpower reserves than unrestrained eating (no food is off-limits), and, often, counter-regulatory eating (overeating “forbidden” foods) results from a period of high restraint (Lee, 2016). Because of this, she recommends a no-food-off-limits approach to healthy eating, and that one should make small changes week by week toward healthier eating as opposed to drastic ones. The less willpower required the more likely the healthy habits will last.


Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource [Abstract]? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 74(5):1252-65.

Burke, S. M., Carron, A. V., Eys, M. A., Ntoumanis, N., & Estabrooks, P. A. (2006). Group versus individual approach? A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of interventions to promote physical activity. Sport & Exercise Psychology Review, 2(1), 19-35.

Clark, J. E. (1995). On becoming skillful: Patterns and constraints. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 66(3), 173-183.

Fell, J. S. (2011, April 4). For best exercise, don’t be lonely or late. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from,0,746272.story

Jongen, P. J., Heerings, M., Ruimschotel, R., Hussaarts, A., Duyverman, L., van der Zande, A., & … Visser, L. H. (2016). Intensive social cognitive treatment (can do treatment) with participation of support partners in persons with relapsing remitting Multiple Sclerosis: Observation of improved self-efficacy, quality of life, anxiety and depression 1 year later. BMC Research Notes, 91-8. doi:10.1186/s13104-016-2173-5

Lee, S. (2016) Why can’t I stick to my diet: The what-the-hell effect explained. Sohee Fit. Retrieved from