Why do we exercise?

Reading time: 5 min 30sec

Why do you exercise? Why do you not exercise?

Changing your behaviour is not easy, but sometimes it’s necessary. For some, the challenge  is adopting a more physically active lifestyle. The benefits of an active lifestyle are clear – it  reduces the likelihood of heart problems, diabetes and obesity, alleviates symptoms of  depression and anxiety, and the list goes on. Despite the myriad of benefits, there are still  barriers preventing people from initiating and committing to regular exercise, and thus they  live relatively inactive lifestyles.

"Understanding the psychological factors behind why we do or do not exercise is key to not  only helping ourselves, but influencing change in others as well."

With the assumption that we all have an equal understanding of the benefits of exercise,  why do some people “choose” to remain sedentary? 

People may have a million different reasons for not exercising, but you could argue it comes  down to the fact that these individuals haven’t internalized pro-exercise attitudes, beliefs  and values (Garrin, 2014). On the surface, you may know that exercise is beneficial, but how  much do you truly believe that exercise is necessary? How much do you value the outcomes  of exercise? How much do you believe in your own ability to impact your health and  wellbeing through exercise? How hard do you think it’ll be to start changing your behaviour  and to overcome the setbacks along the way? 

For example, some people may believe that exercise is not absolutely necessary despite the  benefits, possibly believing that there are other ways to attain those same benefits e.g.  healthy diet. Others may have tried being more physically active before, but succumbed to  old habits and now use previous failures as reasons to not try again.  

Ask yourself the following question: Why do you/ don’t you exercise? Reflect on that and be  honest with yourself.  

The answer to this question implies our internal attitudes, beliefs and values towards  exercise, and has important implications for both our willingness to initiate exercise-related  behaviours and our ability to adhere to a physically active lifestyle in the long-term.  

Satisfying Basic Psychological Needs  

According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985), people are internally  motivated to engage in an activity because it satisfies their basic psychological needs of:  autonomy, competence and relatedness.  

People are more motivated to engage in exercise if they feel like the decision to do so is of  their own free will (autonomy). Commitment to regular exercise is higher when people  don’t feel any pressure or an obligation to exercise, but rather enjoy the experience and see  exercise as important in reaping certain benefits i.e. staying healthy, socializing etc. 

We feel good about ourselves when we successfully complete or master challenging tasks.  This describes our basic need to feel competent. In this regard, your motivation to exercise  is also associated with your perception of your ability to achieve your exercise-related goals  and overcome the obstacles along the way.  

Finally, people engage in activities to feel a meaningful connection with others. We may  play a sport, go to the gym, or simply go on walks as a way to bond and spend some time  with friends and other like-minded individuals. Having a common purpose and similar values  with others further enhances this feeling of relatedness.  

The degree to which these needs are fulfilled is associated with how intrinsically motivated  the individual is to exercise – that is how internally motivated the person is, and this is  strongly linked with the person’s likelihood to engage and persist in exercise behaviours.  

"Keeping SDT in mind, there are several things we can do to adopt and maintain a  commitment to regular exercise.  "


  1. Pick an exercise you genuinely enjoy  

Should go without saying that you’re way more likely to want to continue doing something the more you enjoy it. 

2. Set progressively more challenging yet attainable goals  

Start with a relatively easily achievable goal within your exercise, and work to  achieve that. As you complete increasingly challenging goals, confidence in your own  abilities will also increase.  

  1. Plan for setbacks  

Obstacles and setbacks are inevitable in doing anything worthwhile. Don’t let them  paralyze you from ever starting, be aware of the things that might get in your way  and the setbacks you may face, and have a contingency plan detailing what you plan  to do should these arise.

  1. Find a friend 

Exercising with others – whether that’s by joining a team or having a gym partner – gives us a chance to connect and motivate one another.

5. Reflect  

Reflect upon your exercise experiences (e.g. in a journal). Be aware of the challenges  you face and set goals to overcome them. Focus on the positive aspects of the  experience. The more positives you start to see, the more you’ll start exercising out of your own volition.

Encouraging change in others  

For people like fitness trainers or sports coaches, motivating others in regards to exercise is  a key aspect of their jobs. Interacting with others in a manner that promotes feelings of  autonomy, competence, and relatedness can encourage others to begin the process of  change, and importantly to be persistent and stick with their new routine.  

Below are some basic principles for creating a motivational atmosphere:  

  • Empathy – Acknowledge that behaviour change is hard, and your clients may find it  extremely challenging. Listen to their struggles without judgement.  
  • Balance – Balance levels of challenge and support. Steadily increase the difficulty of  exercises as clients accomplish their goals. Give them positive feedback to increase  feelings of competence, and help them when exercises are too difficult. Remember  exercises should be sufficiently challenging that clients find it rewarding to  accomplish, but are also well-within their capabilities.  
  • Choice – Do not pressure your client to do anything. Provide meaningful rationales  for engaging in exercise. Give them choice over the activity or exercise they would  like to do.  
By: Hiren Khemlani – Performance Psychologist and Director of Peak of Mind

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self- determination in human  behavior. New York: Plenum Press Publishing Co. 

Garrin, J. M. (2014). Self-efficacy, self-determination, and self-regulation: The role of the  fitness professional in social change agency. Journal of Social Change, 6(1), 4.

Related articles:

For more resources to help you. Visit our shop, or join one of our sessions below.