The Quality of Motivation Is Not the Same

by Sara C. Folta, PhD

Have you ever sensed that within your StrongWomen classes, there are differences in the reasons your participants are there and that these differences are related to how hard they work, how often they show up, and whether they stick around?  In this post, I’ll discuss the different qualities of motivation, and provide strategies for using this understanding to guide your participants toward greater success within your classes.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT), founded by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, uniquely distinguishes between different types of motivation, on a scale from extrinsic (coming from outside of oneself) to intrinsic.  As you might guess, the more intrinsically motivated someone is to do a particular behavior, the more long-term success someone will have with that behavior.


At the extrinsic end of the scale, peoples behaviors are regulated by the hope for external rewards or to avoid punishments.  This would mean that some of your participants are basically showing up to get a pat on the back from their doctors, husbands, or other people, but in a major way, their hearts aren’t really in it.  Specialists who study motivation and exercise have suggested that since many people feel pressured socially and sometimes medically to lose weight, this type of motivation may be pervasive.  Next on the spectrum is interjected€ regulation of behavior. In this case, your participants are showing up and exercising because they’ll feel guilty if they don’t.  While this is a little more intrinsic, participants haven’t really embraced the behavior €“ they’re just trying to keep from feeling bad about themselves.  For both external and interjected behavioral regulation, dropping out is a likely outcome.

The identified€ type of behavioral regulation takes a leap toward a more intrinsic form of motivation.  In this case, women consciously value an outcome of exercise. For example, My goal is to stay independent for as long as possible€, and they are engaging in exercise to achieve that goal.  Closely related but even more intrinsic is integrated€ regulation of behavior. In this case the reasons for exercising are in full alignment with that woman’s overall values; it’s very much a free choice that is driven by her overall life goals.  Not unexpectedly, there’s evidence that this type of motivation predicts participation in regular exercise better than the more extrinsically motivated types. More surprising perhaps is that it might predict regular exercise better than doing exercise for the pure intrinsic love of the activity.  This makes some sense, though, when considering activities like weight training, which can be tough, repetitive, and kind of low on the fun factor€ scale.  Women who come to class because the benefits are fully integrated with their own goals and values are likely to push through all that and find great satisfaction in doing it anyway.

How do you help foster the more intrinsic types of motivation that will best help your participants stay and thrive in the StrongWomen programs?  According to SDT, the more you focus on helping people meet key psychological needs, the more you will help promote more intrinsic forms of motivation.  You can do this in the following ways:

Incorporate a sense of choice and ownership.

  • Provide clear explanations for exercises. (The reason we do this is that it will improve your ability to catch yourself if you start to fall.)
  • Find out what their values are, and link exercise with those values.
  • Provide as much choice within the structure of the class as is appropriate.  Use language that supports choice. (You could try this€  It’s up to you.)

Promote their confidence:

  • Start slowly and build up. One reason we designed the programs as we have is so that women can gain a sense of mastery before moving on, building their confidence.  So just keep following the program!
  • Address fears. Older women especially may have fears related to exercise. It’s important to address fears of injury, although the StrongWomen programs are designed to be very safe, they must FEEL safe.  (Would it be helpful for me to review proper form for this exercise?€)
  • Offer genuine praise of all successes, big and small, using language so they credit themselves. (Congratulations, you’re ready to add some weight!  You’ve worked really hard to get here.)

Promote a sense of belonging:

  • Foster group bonding. Many of you already know that a secret ingredient to the StrongWomen programs is the wonderful bonds that form within the groups.  You can continue to support this by making sure there is time and space for this to happen it’s not all down to business€.
  • Create common goals. You can create a poster or other visuals to chart overall group progress, such as minutes exercised or exercises added.  This helps the group work toward common goals.
  • Maintain a positive atmosphere using all the wonderful group skills that you’ve likely developed, such as setting a friendly tone and nipping conflicts in the bud.


Further information about Self-Determination Theory if you are interested:

Self-Determination Theory website:


TED Talk by Daniel H. Pink, who talks about motivation more generally in a way that’s very much based on Self-Determination Theory:


Why We Do What We Do by EL Deci and R Flaste. A book meant for laypersons about the theory.


This entry was posted in Behavior Theory, Other posts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *