Let’s Get Physical

September 5, 2022
Elizabeth Teas

We all know that physical activity is good for us. Being physically active can improve your brain health, reduce disease risk, and even improve your relationships. 1, 2 And yet, only 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. meet physical activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. 3 Studies also show that about half of students on any college campus are sedentary, and their engagement in exercise declines further after graduation. 4 But if we know how good physical activity is for us, why aren’t we all doing it more?

One possible explanation has to do with what we’ve traditionally experienced as exercise. Despite the marketing campaigns about the health benefits of exercise, encouragement from health professionals, and personal commitments (e.g., New Year’s resolutions), most people who start an exercise program tend to return to their old ways after displeasure or discomfort in repeated attempts. When we experience these feelings of discomfort, we are often reminded of prior negative experiences with exercise - whether that’s past failures with using exercise to lose weight or perhaps when a sports coach used exercise as punishment. 

Enjoyment is one of the keys to understanding the experiences and motivation of people who engage in physical activity. Researchers have shown that many people who do a behavior voluntarily over a long period of time are intrinsically motivated. 5 In other words, they have discovered an inner feeling that motivates them to perform the behavior, such as exercise, for its own sake. This mindset helps people draw enjoyment and fun from the experience itself, making it easier to do over and over again. 

Cultivating intrinsic motivation to exercise is especially important for college students, who are continuously bombarded by external stimuli and stressors. 

Elliott FriedmanSo, how does one develop intrinsic motivation? First, grab a buddy. Research shows that engaging in exercise with others can help increase feelings of social connection, contributing to your intrinsic motivation.5 Second, try not to focus on those classic external motivators. Although losing weight or getting positive feedback from others may be temporarily motivating, it’s not sustainable. Instead, focus on your own personal reasons for wanting to be active. Finally, find something you love. Forget about what you think you should do and do something you enjoy (or at least something you can tolerate). Exercise doesn’t have to take place in the gym. Remember, any sort of body movement – walking, dancing, parkour – “counts” as exercise. Perhaps the reason you haven’t been enjoying exercise is that you just haven’t found the right activity.

Key References

  1. Benefits of Physical Activity

  2. Exercise your way to a better relationship

  3. Exercise or Physical Activity

  4. Phat Exercise: How Young Adults Enjoy and Sustain Physical Activity

  5. Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being

Elizabeth Teas is a PhD candidate in Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University, working with Dr. Elliot Friedman. Her research focuses on identifying biopsychosocial processes that impact health and understanding how these processes develop over the life course, with an emphasis on social relationships, well-being, and health behaviors.

Dr. Elliot Friedman is the William and Salley Berner professor of Gerontology in Human Development and Family Studies in the college of Health and Human Sciences. His research interests include how psychological experiences affect biological processes related to health with an emphasis on physiological regulation in middle and later life, psychological well-being and health, biopsychosocial integration and successful aging.

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