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Enjoyment and its Effect on Adherence to Physical Activity

When beginning to look at the antecedents of how an individual starts and remains active throughout their life, complex issues arise that are difficult to conceive just from theory. To understand the motivation behind an intention to engage in physical activity, Biddle & Mutrie (2008) state that it is the choice, persistence, continuing of motivation, and the intensity that defines the underlying intention. However, there seems to be a lack of emphasis on how the environment can affect an individual’s choice and overall perception of enjoyment, competence, and need for persistence. Creating a climate that nurtures positive internal traits early on in youth, can have a big impact on adult exercise participation. In light of this issue, this article will use concepts from both self-efficacy theory (SET), and self-determination theory (SDT) to look at how the role of others, and the environment has an effect on individual enjoyment of exercise and physical activity. Furthermore, I will propose my own theoretical model that aims to emphasize the enjoyment of experience as a main motivator for keeping people engaged in physical activity throughout their life by turning intention into behavior.

If we were to say that motivation simply comes from the strong will of a particular individual, we would be looking at the issue very one dimensionally. Many factors such as social inequality, environmental factors, genetic susceptibility, and interestingly, learned helplessness play a huge role in how we think and behave. What could be a positive experience for one person in terms of staying active, could be a negative for another person because of some past altercation that caused this person to view physical activity as something they are inadequate at (for example, a poor physical education teacher). When looking at the most important motivational factors for motivation, the need to feel a sense of achievement is listed (Biddle & Murtrie, 2008). This is in line with SDT where research has suggested that whenever an autonomy-supportive environment is nurtured, there is a greater quality of motivation (Goudas et al., 1995, as cited in Biddle et al., 2007). Individuals, especially children, grow in this type of environment, just like a seed grows into a tree only if the environment is conducive to growth. Similarly, in order to create such surroundings and create a greater sense of self-worth, SET theory states that individuals should be exposed to gradual increases in exercise dose, arranging to see others in similar positions, have peers give out encouragement, and the setting should be relaxed but still upbeat (Ewart, 1989, as cited in Biddle et al.). Greater adherence to exercise programs was found with instructors who fostered an autonomy-supportive environment where the use of positive language, and giving reason behind the exercises was cultivated (Biddle et al., 2007). Furthermore, this increases confidence in those participating which is an important construct in exercise motivation for self-efficacy theory. Whenever people feel that they are competent, the more likely they are to want to demonstrate that competence, thus are motivated to be active (Biddle et al., 2007).

In a study involving active and inactive participants, Loehr & Baldwin (2014) found that people often underestimate how enjoyable their exercise will be, especially in individuals who are inactive. This undermines their motivation for physical activity, as even though inactive participants showed lower expectancies of enjoyment pre exercise, they did not differ in actual levels of enjoyment afterwards with the active group. Therefore, it seems that it is important to create exercises that are more enjoyable first, and then focus on adherence. By providing a more personalized approach, such as tuning in to the clients likes and dislikes and creating an exercise plan based from that, individuals can start to enjoy the actual activity, become more confident, and thus likely to continue. SDT states that people preferentially orient towards their environments, and naturally align to external motives and norms (Teixera et al., 2012). Consequently, it is fair to say that intent to perform a behavior has antecedents in perceptions of climate. To put this into visual perspective, Figure 1 shows the autonomy-supportive environment alongside experiences as the first stage.

Figure 1. Perceived Enjoyment Model

The environment shapes the experience and having a supportive climate where people can feel autonomous, interact socially, and experience mastery of a task, are components of SDT. The interaction between these two stages creates an experience of enjoyment, which like the first two stages, plays a role in attitudes/beliefs and self-image. Since the experience from an autonomy-supportive environment is enjoyment, attitudes and self-image are most likely positive, which in turn creates perceived competence. After an individual feels like they have the confidence to take on an activity, the intention to create a prolonged behaviour is established. As shown in the conceptual map, this is where the individual reaches the adaptive behaviour stage and is likely to engage in long-term physical activity. On the contrary, if the experiences from the environment are negative, such as fostering a controlling-interpersonal climate, then this will lead to lower perceptions of attitude, self-image, and competence. This results in maladaptive behaviour, or in other words lack of physical activity.

This article has sought out to highlight the criticisms of other theoretical models that lack emphasis on the surrounding environment as a factor for motivation. Building upon SET and SDT, I have proposed a similar theoretical model that points out the importance of establishing an environment that fosters and creates enjoyment first and foremost, before moving on to physical activity across the lifespan. Moreover, if there were programs targeted at young children that decrease perceived incompetence and concern over self-presentation by prioritizing enjoyment, then this will create a happy, healthy individual who is motivated to stay physically active well into adulthood. By keeping it simple, having positive encouragement from peers and instructors, as well as nurturing a sense of accomplishment, exercise practitioners can begin to bridge the gap between intention and behaviour.


Biddle, S.J.H. & Mutrue, N. (2008). Motivation for physical activity: Introduction and overview. In S.J.H. Biddle & N. Mutrie, Psychology of physical activity:Determinants, well-being and interventions. London: Routledge. (pp. 39-53).

Biddle, S.J.H, Haggar, M.S., Chatzisarantis, N.L.D., & Lippke, S. (Chapter 24).Theoretical frameworks in exercise psychology, pp. 537-559

Loehr, V.G., & Baldwin, A.S. (2014). Affective Forecasting Error in Exercise:Differences between Physically Active and Inactive Individuals, Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 3(3), 177-183

Teixeira, P.J, Carraca, E.V., Markland, D., Silva, M.N., & Ryan, R.M. (2012). Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 9(78)

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