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en pojke som springer på stranden och drivs av inre motivation

Where are you on the scale of motivation to exercise?

Being physically active does not really interest me. I would rather do other things in my spare time.”

If you agree with this statement, you are not alone. Some 42% of a sample of European citizens (sample size: 26,788) also agreed. The question was asked as part of a survey reported in the Eurobarometer 2010.1

Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. We could fill this entire web portal with reports of research confirming the beneficial effects of exercise. The problem, however, is often not the level of information about exercise – it is the motivation to do it.

Lacking motivation to exercise

Surveys have shown that 15% of people with diabetes take very little or no exercise. Another 15% take exercise less than once a week. Some feel that they have given up. Others do not recognise any connection between what they do and their state of health – or would rather not think about it. Many believe that they are not fit enough to exercise, or feel that they lack time as well as ability.

We tend to discuss motivation as something a person either has or has not. But there are different kinds of motivation. New, exciting research results demonstrate how different forms of motivation can affect our exercise habits.2

Internal and external motivation

It is possible to distinguish between internal and external motivation. If the exercise is experienced as a goal in its own right, the motivation is of the internal kind. The motivation is called external if, on the other hand, the exercise is seen only as a means to a desirable end – it might be weight reduction, or achieving correct blood sugar values, or the appreciation of others.2

There is a sliding scale between the two poles of purely external or internal motivation. Where you are on the scale has a profound influence on your exercise habits. So, what does the research show?

Stage 1: External Regulation

At this stage, someone is telling us that we must take exercise and we set about doing as we are told, either because we are offered some kind of reward or try to avoid being scolded, for instance by hospital staff or relatives. In other words, we see exercise as a necessary evil. If there were an ”exercise pill” with equally positive effects on the blood sugar value, we would happily swallow it and get out of having to exercise.

Stage 2: Controlled Motivation

At this stage, you exercise because it is part of a deal you have struck with yourself, and not because another person insists that you should. You have ideals to live up to and exercise is what you feel you “ought to do” to satisfy these inner demands. It is not, however, something you enjoy for its own sake.

Studies have shown that exercise motivated by dutifulness is often associated with negative feelings: guilt, if you miss training sessions, and anxiety that you are not doing enough to look after your health. This stage of motivation can get you started with exercise but people tend to give up unless they find more deeply felt reasons for exercising.

Stage 3: Exercise Becomes Part of Your Identity

At this stage, we exercise because we realise how crucial it is for us to reach the goals we have set ourselves. Then, you exercise not so much because you see it as a necessary evil, or as a way to prop up your self-esteem but you are driven by your awareness that this is a way to become more energetic and avoid illness. Exercise has become a natural part of your everyday life.

Stage 4: Internal Motivation

In order to persist with exercise in the long run, you need what the researchers call “internal motivation”. People driven by internal motivation would carry on even if they had access to that “exercise pill”. They feel that the exercise experience is a satisfying goal in its own right and no longer a means to an end – such as control of weight or blood sugar values.

How to reach the ideal?

People’s motivation often changes with time towards a more deeply felt motivation. But, even if you have tried to get going several times and still find it hard to stick to regular training schedules, you should probably try other approaches or try to think in new ways about your habits.

To start operating at the higher levels of motivation, it is important not to be fixated on particular outcomes. Of course it is good to set up goals, to count steps and check effects on blood sugar levels. Research has however shown that we carry on more consistently if the exercise also gives us experiences that chime in with our most personal tastes and values.

For those who love nature, enjoying the bird song while out walking in the woods.

For those who love socialising, sharing happy laughter during dancing sessions.

For those who love stillness, meditating quietly while gardening.

Traditionally, health care systems are focused on the direct effects of exercise on health rather than the experience. Perhaps that is how we unnecessarily compromise the enjoyment of exercise and turn it into a “must”, into something to be ticked off the do-today list.

Many feel “exercise is not for me” because it seems to mean having to sweat in a gym or run fast over long distances. But dancing, walking and gardening can also be useful forms of exercise.

Health is not only a matter of spot-on blood sugar values but also about a sense of well-being. The insight that exercise can be not only a way to health but also a way to experience health – in that moment – can appear as revolutionary as it is simple!

How can exercise become a meaningful experience for you?


1. Eurobarometer: Sport and Physical Activity. Special Eurobarometer 2010, 334/Wave 72.3.

2. Teixeira et al. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2012, 9:78

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