You can't always get what you want: Motives and gains of new exercisers


Within the framework of self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985), participatory motives represent what people hope to achieve or avoid through engaging in a specific behavior. Gains represent their actual outcomes. A qualitative description approach was used to retrospectively explore the participatory motives and corresponding gains of adults who completed a year-long exercise program, as well as their adherence to exercise after the program ended. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 10 female and 8 male participants (M = 49.9 years, SD = 10). Transcripts were subjected to content analysis and three primary themes emerged. First, shifting focus from weight and appearance to quality of life and improved health involved participatory motives for exercise without corresponding gains, as well as unexpected gains in other areas that led to new motives, resulting in a shift in focus from more controlled motives to more autonomous motives. Second, education and confidence comprised a common motive for participating in the program (learning to exercise safely and effectively in a gym setting) that was accompanied by increased perceived competence and confidence. Third, accountability/self-generated obligation to exercise for others represented a very important participatory motive and gain that were tied to the study. Participants hoped that a year of regular, structured exercise, would translate into long-term exercise adherence, but when the program finished, they experienced dramatic decreases in their exercise frequency and intensity. It appears that it was difficult to replace the sense of obligation provided by the study with a more sustainable motive for exercise.

Acknowledgments: This research was supported by a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.