Exercise program design is only one piece of the puzzle in our roles as fitness professionals. Most people who begin an exercise program quit within the first six months. Lack of time and lack of motivation are two of the most commonly reported barriers that prevent people from sticking with an exercise program. Research shows that committed exercisers do not have any more discretionary time than non-exercisers. Thus, focusing on strategies to increase exercise motivation can help with long-term exercise adherence.

Intrinsic Motivation vs. Extrinsic Motivation

A small percentage of people who exercise regularly are intrinsically motivated to do so. Intrinsically motivated exercisers enjoy the act of exercise –independent of the health outcomes or other benefits that may come with it. On the other hand, individuals who are extrinsically motivated to exercise are motivated by external rewards such as health outcomes, social recognition, or incentive programs (e.g. reduced health insurance premiums for signing up for a worksite fitness program).

Consider the following when working to cultivate increased motivation for exercise:

Identify potential sources for social support.

Social support refers to the subjective perception that one is cared for and is part of a supportive social network. A systematic review recently published in the International Review of Sports and Exercise Psychology identified two main types of social support that are positively associated with exercise adherence.¹

  • Emotional support is the ability to show empathy and genuine concern for another person. This type of support is critical in both the beginning and maintenance of an exercise program. Examples might include offering a listening ear when a friend or loved one is tired and wants to skip a workout; then cheering them on and encouraging them to persevere.
  • Practical support is demonstrated when another person does something to encourage the target behavior such as going to the gym with a friend, or taking on additional household chores to free up time so that a spouse or partner can exercise.

While personal trainers and group fitness instructors may be an initial source of support for clients, there is strong evidence suggesting that support from friends and family members, and member-to-member support (e.g., other gym-goers) may be more important in long-term exercise adherence. As fitness professionals, we may need to help clients identify people in their lives who can provide ongoing support.

Emphasize health benefits over appearance.

New exercisers may be enticed by the physical attributes associated with exercise, but focusing on this piece may actually be counterproductive. Research suggests that participating in exercise primarily to improve physical appearance may have a negative effect on self-esteem and body image.2,3 However, exercise programs that focus on the health benefits of regular physical activity are positively associated with both exercise enjoyment and a healthy body image.4

Help clients self-monitor through effective goal setting.

We can provide real-time support and encouragement during face-to-face exercise sessions, but our clients will need to learn to self-monitor if they want to be successful in the long term. Activity trackers, mobile apps, and food and physical activity journals are great tools to help clients keep track of their progress. Teach clients to set goals that will help to keep them motivated. Keep in mind that action-oriented goals (e.g. “I will work out for 45 minutes a day, five days a week.”) are more effective at driving behavior change than outcome-oriented goals (“I want to lose 10 pounds.”).

Remember that increasing motivation for exercise adherence takes time. To deepen your understanding of physical activity behavior change, consider registering for one of NETA’s home study courses on Behavior Change & Psychology.


1Scarapicchia, T.M.F., Amireault, S., Faulkner, G., & Sabiston, C.M. (2017). Social support and physical activity participation among healthy adults: A systematic review of prospective studies. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10(1), 50-83.
2Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2008). Relations among exercise type, self-objectification, and body image in the fitness centre environment: The role of reasons for exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(6), 855-866.
3Strelan, P., & Hargreaves, D. (2005). Reasons for exercise and body esteem: Men’s responses to self-objectification. Sex Roles, 53(7-8), 495-503.
4Raedeke, T.D., Focht, B.C., & Scales, D. (2007). Social environmental factors and psychological responses to acute exercise for socially physique anxious females. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 8(4), 463-476.

Contributed By:

Jennifer Turpin StanfieldJennifer Turpin Stanfield, M.A. (Exercise Science), is the Assistant Director for Fitness and Wellness at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, a fitness writer, and a national presenter for NETA. She has more than 15 years of experience in the health and fitness industry and is passionate about helping others live healthier lives through the adoption and maintenance of positive health behaviors.

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