Motivation has become a popular word and concept that is constantly used in mainstream society with the fitness world being no exception. The exercise world has no shortage of people who allude to motivation (mainly the lack thereof) as the main problem restricting them from their goals.  There is no question that motivation plays an important role in achieving ones goals (fitness or otherwise).  However, the word is often thrown around at will, with the scope and meaning of which often being misguided or worse yet examined with misunderstanding. It is the purpose of this text to examine the concept of motivation, its nature, meaning and implications whilst also elaborating on how it applies specifically to the world of fitness.


Defining Motivation:

Before moving onto the broad and often complex area of motivation, it helps to first start with a definition of motivation. So what is motivation? Motivation is a derivative of the word motive, which comes from the Latin verb movere meaning ‘to move’.  It is a psychological attribute that instigates action towards a desired goal and evokes, controls, and sustains certain goal-directed behaviours. Research on the topic of motivation is vast and at times conflicting with the complexity lying in the nature of endeavouring to assess what is at the heart of what humans want (motives) and the various reasoning for such. With that said, research can elucidate some general root causes and grounds for motivation. It has been demonstrated that motivation has origins in physiological, behavioural, cognitive, and social areas. At its most basic level, motivation can be conceived by an impulse to optimize well-being or pleasure and/or minimize physical pain. Specific physical needs (such as eating & resting) can also be origins for motivation.


What most researchers do agree on is that motivation concerns the direction and magnitude of human behaviour, that is:

• the choice of an action,

• the perseverance with it, and

• the effort expended on it.


In other words, motivation is responsible for:

• why people choose to do something,

• how long they are willing to sustain the action, and

• how strongly they pursue it.


There are a number of theories and models that have been proposed to explain motivation, its workings and its nature. Although many of these theories and models are at times conflicting, researchers do agree that there are 2 distinct categories for motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Despite the distinction between these 2 facets of motivation, latest research findings are actually revealing that these 2 categories are more synergistic then once believed and actually have a profound interplay and influence on one another. I will elaborate more on this later, but for now, let’s look at how these 2 categories are distinguished from one another and what factors influence the classification of each.   


Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is motivation that is derived by interest or gratification in the task itself. It exists within an individual rather than on external influences such as the desire for reward. Intrinsic motivation is an innate motivational tendency and is a crucial element in cognitive, social, and physical development. People are likely to be intrinsically motivated if they:

  • exercise autonomy – meaning the outcomes of a task are attributed to factors under the person’s own control
  • have self-efficacy beliefs – belief in one’s own skills and purpose to be an effective agent in reaching desired goals
  • seek to master a topic or role and not just achieve good results.



Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation is motivation derived by the execution of an activity in order to attain an outcome, whether or not that activity is also intrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation is externally influenced and comes from outside of an individual. Typical extrinsic motivations include rewards (e.g. money or grades for showing the desired behaviour), or the threat of punishment in the case of misbehaviour. If an activity encourages a participant to win and to beat others (e.g. a contest or competition), it is based on extrinsic motivation and not on purely enjoying the intrinsic benefits that the activity may bring. Cheering crowds and the desire to win medals are also forms of extrinsic motivation.

Understanding the difference and implications of Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation is important. However, it is also important to consider certain theoretical models in explaining motivation and getting a more comprehensive picture of its role.


Motivation Models and their implications:

Goal-setting theory

Goal-setting theory is based on the concept that people sometimes have a drive to reach a clearly defined end state. A goal’s effectualness is affected by three features: specificity, difficulty and proximity.

Specificity concerns the description of the goal. The goal should be objectively defined, meaningful and intelligible for the individual. A classic example of a poorly specified goal is to ‘lose weight’ – progress and/or effort towards such a goal will always be questionable and likely to be compromised as it has a large un-objective measurability component to it. The goal also has no clearly defined result to aim for and gives no attention to needed timeframes or urgency of acquisition. With that said, it should be noted that a goal should be concrete and personal to someone (i.e. not abstract). This gives the individual a sense of purpose and improves the likelihood of the goal being pursued and reached.

A goal should not be too easy or too hard to complete. It should be moderately difficult and in a state where it is challenging but not overwhelming. People naturally need a challenge to be motivated but at the same time need to know that there is a substantial probability that they will succeed. With that said, it should be clear that larger goals should not be made irrelevant. Large goals serve long term motivation though their strongly associated larger meaning, values, enjoyment, interest and purpose. Larger goals should be broken down into smaller goals in order for the task to remain challenging (but not overwhelming) whilst still retaining meaning and value to a person.

Good goal setting incorporates the SMART criteria, in which goals are: Specific, Measurable, Accurate, Realistic, and Timely and present a situation where the time between the initiation of behaviour and the end state is close. This explains why some children are more motivated to learn how to ride a bike than to master algebra. (REF)Therefore, a large goal needs to be broken down into smaller components not just to make the goal easier, but to also increase the goal’s proximity to the individual and have a significant effect on one’s self-belief and ability in achieving it – would you feel confident running a long distance race in a certain timeframe if you did not have any time points/stages of the race to measure progress and see if you are on target? Without self-belief, motivation for any goal is hard to come by.


Incentive theory

Motivation can be fuelled by rewards and the hope of rewards. Rewards and even the promise of rewards, are the basis for incentive theory.  Incentive theory is the basic principle behind marketing. Beckmann, J., & Heckhausen, H. demonstrated this in 2008[ii], that showing that a good marketing strategy will cause you to want something you neither have nor think you need. You somehow expect that by having this “thing,” you will be better off than you are without it”.  

reward (tangible or intangible), is granted after the occurrence of an action (i.e. behaviour) with the intention of causing the behaviour to reoccur. Positive meaning is therefore associated with the behaviour and it becomes emphasised and reinforced. The same principle can also be applied when negative meaning is associated with contrasting behaviours (e.g. punishment). Studies show that if a person receives a reward immediately after a desired action, the effect of that reward is greater than if it the reward was delayed. Motivation has been shown to decrease as the delay lengthens between action and reward. It is worth noting that repetitive action-reward combination can cause an action to become habit.

Incentives can be large and small but should be commensurate to the meaning and scope of the goal e.g. a Nobel Prize for breakthrough cancer work is commensurate, while base-jumping for a Mars bar is not. Often, hope and an end state are incentives and rewards in and of themselves and are often the driving forces behind the achievement of larger goals.


 Body Transformation


The Interplay of Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation:

Latest research supports the notion that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are not separate of each other but rather compliment and influence the outcome of one another in a cyclical fashion. They are not segregated influences or factors but rather work on a continuum and ebb and flow over time –  one may take a dominant role in influencing our behaviours and decisions at one time while the other takes a lesser role and vice versa. An example of this would be someone running their first 10km race. They may have extrinsic motivation to do the race initially – such as finishing the race and getting a time or place. In the midst of the race, the participant may then begin to be less motivated by the end of the race and start to be intrinsically motivated by the feeling they get from running and the enjoyment they are having going through the motions. This intrinsic motivation may start to fade as the race gets harder, and they may resort to the external influence of loved ones in the crowd who are cheering them on. Performance starts to build again and fatigue begins to fade away, they now start to feel their legs again and enjoy the process of exerting themselves stride after stride…… and the cycle repeats. It is this cycle in which motivation can be looked at in most instances – a cycle where observations (internal and external) & thoughts influence behaviours and behaviours drive performance. Performance will impact thoughts and the process becomes cyclical. Each facet of the process can be composed of not just thoughts and behaviours but many multi-faceted dimensions (such as attitudes, beliefs, intentions, effort, and withdrawal) which all affect the amount of motivation one has.


Implications for exercise:

The nature of motivation and the processes by which it takes effect have some interesting implications for exercise and how we perform. In one study by Scarapicchia young, inactive, healthy-weight females were randomly assigned to exercise at a self-determined pace on a treadmill beside a confederate who was administering regulated verbal primes. Heart rate (HR), rating of perceived exertion (RPE), percentage of time spent in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), and exercise continuance were recorded. Participants completed a self-report questionnaire assessing their  mood pre- and post exercise and their motivational outcomes (i.e. determining whether they were predominantly intrinsically or extrinsically motivated). The intrinsic motivation group reported higher RPE values after 8 min of exercise, had higher recorded HR measures at all 5 recorded time points, exercised at a higher percentage of HR max, spent more time in MVPA, and were more likely to continue to exercise than participants in the externally regulated motivation group. The externally motivated group frequently responded in a positive fashion to the impulses and cues of the intrinsically motivated participants but did not score as high in the above performance indicators. Based on these findings, exercise motivation can be “contagious” through verbal primes, suggesting that exercising with or around intrinsically motivated individuals may have beneficial outcomes. The study also suggests that the mere presence of someone was enough to illicit increased performance and a motivational response.

Murcia also looked at the influence of peers. This time in regards to the effect peers have on the enjoyment of exercise. Data analysis revealed that a climate in which there is an emphasis on cooperation, effort, personal improvement, and increased peer support, variables like enjoyment and motivation and self-belief were positively influenced. This study was also reinforced by a similar study by Parschau L et al that demonstrates positive exercise experience facilitating  behaviour change via self-efficacy.

The above studies demonstrate that extrinsic motivational factors can have an important influence on short term behaviours, self-belief and intrinsic motivation but these extrinsic factors should not be harnessed in isolation. The interplay of intrinsic motivational factors needs to be addressed in order for higher levels of overall motivation to be cultivated and sustained long term.  External rewards (like compliments, fitting into a smaller size, or winning a race) can be great for sparking motivation in a person but long-term motivation also depends on a person’s intrinsic motivation and their attached values and processes for achieving goals. In fact, it has been shown that relying solely on extrinsic motivations or rewards can actually decrease intrinsic motivation and performance over time.

Intriguing findings have been found in numerous Research studies which show that positive body image in women is more complex than the absence of body dissatisfaction. Although exercise reduces women’s body dissatisfaction, very little research has explored how, or even whether, exercise is associated with positive body image. A revealing study by Homan KJTylka TL showed that exercise frequency was related to higher positive body image, but high levels of appearance-based exercise motivation weakened these relationships. Thus, messages promoting exercise need to de-emphasize weight loss and appearance for positive body image to occur.

The above research and data reveals that being a person who is “intrinsically motivated,” can lead to life-changing improvements and better well-being.  Internal motivation involves emphasizing current health and happiness instead of entertaining ideas about future health, fitness, and positive body image. In order to be sustained, exercise and healthy habits need to be relevant to a person’s life today, not just to distant goals. Vague warnings about future health are less motivating than the tangible, post-workout feeling of “Ahhh, I’m so relaxed right now. I need to do this again!” This kind of current, internal drive might not come naturally to all of us, but the good news is it can be learned.

 Personal Trainer

Choices, Motivation and Brain Chemistry:

In a brain-mapping study conducted by Vanderbilt university scientists  Michael Treadway and David Zald.(Journal of Neuroscience, May 2), brains of “go-getters” and “slackers” were mapped to find the chemical basis in which motivation works. The experiment revealed that those willing to work hard for rewards had higher dopamine levels in the striatum and prefrontal cortex—two areas of the brain known to influence motivation and reward. Among slackers, dopamine was present in the anterior insula – an area of the brain that is involved in emotion and risk perception.

As I sit here writing this article, I am fighting the urge to do anything but write the article. So does that make me a genetically disposed lazyman with inherent low dopamine and therefore motivation levels? The short answer is ‘No’ – although there can be individual differences in the brain’s responsiveness to dopamine and the levels of dopamine present in the brain, the brain can be trained to use and channel its dopamine more effectively. According to neurologist Judy Willis – “The brain can be trained to feed off of bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences. You create the dopamine environment, and the brain does the rest. One way to achieve this is by setting incremental goals. In essence, what you are doing is rewiring the brain to attach a dopamine response to the task you want as a reward. Allow yourself to experience frequent positive feedback as you progress through a series of goals. Dopamine will flow as a result of your brain’s positive reinforcement every time you complete a step and meet a challenge.”

Another way to look at the dopamine-motivation angle is to revisit the study mentioned above about go-getters and slackers. You’ll notice that dopamine was present in both types of participants, and remember that dopamine engages a vast set of reactions in the body. Dopamine is involved in both ends of the motivation spectrum, both in igniting a fire to persevere, and in waving the white flag to surrender. Through this lens, motivation becomes less about increasing dopamine, and more about digging deep and being diligent.

Dopamine performs its task well before we obtain rewards, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act and motivate us to achieve, or even avoid something bad. Dopamine has a biological connection to our motivation to achieve and if there’s anything we can do to increase the flow of dopamine (like reinforcing positive feedback via incremental progress), embrace it. Along with this, we must include effort. Sometimes, the cure for low motivation may simply be old-school determination and perseverance, sticking with tasks even when we don’t want to.

There is an alternative and seemingly irrational outcome to the above scenario that you may have experienced from time to time – ‘no follow through’. This is where a person can imagine a large project, break it down and start the task just fine but they lose motivation the closer the project comes to completion. So why is this the case if so much progress has already been made? For people caught in this scenario, the answer is often that the reward comes from the process and actual work performed and less from the end goal. The ensuing finality of an end that is nearing appears to be a fatal blow to the perspective of on what constitutes work pleasure for people caught in this scenario. The answer for this scenario is the same as the one mentioned before it: determination and perseverance need to be exercised in order to see the goal out despite being tempted to do otherwise. This takes discipline and practice that needs to be built and strengthened incrementally over time.



As we have seen illustrated, relying on extrinsic motivational factors is simply not enough to cultivate long-term motivation. The importance of intrinsic motivation needs to be addressed and cultivated in order for motivation to remain strong and have a profound influence on one’s course of action. Although some motivations stem from automated processes such as the need to eat and sleep, there are a number of directive factors and processes that we can choose to address and influence with understanding and practice over time.

To judge the effectiveness of one’s motivation over time, there are a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors that need to be considered. Below are the main ways that are elaborated on throughout this text to harvest motivation effectively:

–         Have rewards or incentives that are commensurate to one’s goals.

–         Employ the SMART criteria when pursuing  goals To foster motivation

–         Larger goals should be broken down into smaller more achievable goals that remain challenging but not overwhelming.

–         Seek intrinsic reward and gratification and do not rely purely on external rewards for long-term motivation

–         Increase your motivation by surrounding yourself with positive and supportive peers but do not depend on them for all motivation

–         Associate larger meaning, purpose, values and interests with your pursuits to maintain motivation long-term.

–         Find the enjoyment that is naturally inherent in goals and tasks themselves (as opposed to just extrinsic rewards), and utilise autonomy and self-efficacy in the process.

–         Seek mastery in your main endeavours and not merely results

–         Create habits around your goals to maintain motivation easier

–         Exercise determination and perseverance to sustain and improve motivation over time


As you can see, with a better understanding of motivation, there are a number of strategies available to exercise and develop its strength over time. I hope you were somewhat motivated by this article and can take action on the conclusions it has drawn and the principles wherein.  As humans, we are all motivated on some level; the question is whether you are motivated more by taking action or whether you are more motivated by the path of inaction?