intrinsic motivation

Building intrinsic motivation – why the ‘why’ is so important in an exercise plan

Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Phil Caruso, explains the important difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and what is crucial for enacting positive and long lasting change.


When we observe anyone embarking on any form of health and fitness program, we generally observe two types of people. You know these people well, perhaps you’re one of them, or perhaps you know of them. Either way, the two types of people are the ones who adhere to the program, and the ones who don’t. But when we look closer, it’s really not that black and white.

I want you, as the reader, to have a think about some of the things you do on a regular basis. I’m not talking about the groceries, or cooking dinner. I’m referring to what you enjoy, what motivates you, what you incorporate as part of your lifestyle.

Perhaps it’s reading. Perhaps you’ve got a green thumb and now that spring is here, you’re exceptionally keen to get out into the garden. That’s fantastic. Have you been doing this for a long time?

If you answered yes to that question, you’ll understand that the reason you do that, is because you are motivated by something deeper than just a nice looking garden, or your thirst for knowledge. You do it, because it’s part of your life.

Exercise should be another activity in your weekly regime that is regarded with the same view as any other enjoyable pursuit.

With the way exercise is perceived in mainstream media, it’s easy to mistake it for a gruelling task that must be endured, rather than enjoyed. Each year with bated breath we tune into the latest season of the Biggest Loser, where contestants are put through significantly demanding and questionable regimes, in order lose the most weight each week.

You know the story. My question is, is that sustainable for long term health and well-being? I know the answer, and I know you probably do too.

The answer is of course not! It is not a practice that can be sustained long term at the intensity required by the show, something has to give. But why is it then that we still become motivated by watching, and then decide to embark on a new fitness regime and declare bodyfat warfare, only to lose interest after a month?

It’s because the show, among other things, has cultivated and harnessed our extrinsic motivation!


What is extrinsic motivation?


Extrinsic motivation, is what drives a person to attain some form of an external reward, such as money, status or recognition. The external driving force behind an individual’s motivation is usually based around something that can be attained immediately, or in the very near future. The classic examples are the individual who has declared bodyfat warfare to prepare for a holiday or an event that is upcoming in a matter of weeks. Yes, we’re all guilty of that.

When the external reward is achieved, we find ourselves back at a point where we are motivated by our internal drive and it’s unfortunately here that many people find themselves driven by destructive behaviours and habits. It’s here that Accredited Exercise Physiologists can make the difference.


What is intrinsic motivation?


Intrinsic motivation is what drives a person based on internal factors, such as enjoyment, or because of a moral obligation – they do it because they have an innate need to.

A typical example could be a Registered Nurse, who is driven primarily by their desire to assist and care for individuals in need. Further, it would be said that any Allied Health Professional who works in a Service Based Industry, is motivated by their desire to facilitate change, assist individuals in need, and optimise health.

They do this role not because they are motivated by money or fame, rather they believe in the profession, and they believe that it is part of who they are.


For many, exercise is regarded as a chore and is only completed out of obligation. It is completed so that an external desire is met. This does not have to be the case.


Let’s look at another example. In the beginning I mentioned you may be motivated by keeping a nice looking garden. With spring having just arrived, you are motivated to get out in the garden to ensure it looks terrific for the season.

You may be thinking that this is motivation for an external reward, but the drive to get out into the garden primarily comes from within, it comes from the enjoyment knowing that this is an activity that you love to do, and regardless of the season, or weather, you will get out and complete it, as it’s part of who you are and it’s part of what you enjoy doing.

This is where Accredited Exercise Physiologists can connect the link between enjoyment and exercise. For many, exercise is regarded as a chore and is only completed out of obligation. It is completed so that an external desire is met. This does not have to be the case.

Seeing an Accredited Exercise Physiologist can often be the first step towards harnessing the motivation that is required for long-term enjoyment and adherence to a health and fitness pursuit. Furthermore, with over 4 years of University Training, Accredited Exercise Physiologists are pivotal in helping you find not just the type of exercise that is right for you, but how to best balance it with your other enjoyable pursuits to ensure it is part of a healthy lifestyle, for the long term. They achieve this, by building your Intrinsic Motivation.


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Three Ways Your Accredited Exercise Physiologist Can harness Your Intrinsic Motivation


  1. An Accredited Exercise Physiologist will drive an intervention with YOU in mind


Anyone that adheres to any form of health intervention are the ones who essentially allocate it as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle. This means they are not constantly thinking about it, rather they enjoy that particular time in their week, and look forward to it, as it is a chance to better themselves.

This comes about as a result of autonomy and choice. An Accredited Exercise Physiologist will allow you that autonomy when designing your health program and in doing so, ensures that you can view exercise as a choice, not a requirement.

Of course, within an Exercise Physiology context there will be times where intervention requires swift and significant action, but generally, you will not find an AEP adopting a “Do as I say” policy, rather they will allow for the intervention to be driven in collaboration with you. This will ensure that you feel actively part of the program, and it’s your say that counts!


  1. An Accredited Exercise Physiologist will promote rewards as part of a balanced lifestyle


On a Friday evening, I enjoy a beer, or a glass of wine and a nice meal with my wife and some time with my young son. It’s something I look forward to throughout the week, and something that, at the end of the week I can enjoy and savour.

I’m sure you as the reader, have things that you look forward to as well. An Accredited Exercise Physiologist will realise this, and will promote this as part of your intervention, as this is done to avoid the all or nothing mentality that many individuals adopt, especially when beginning an exercise intervention.

I can speak from experience, when I say that the all or nothing mentality works fantastically….for about a week or two. One of the following things happen: results plateau, obstacles pop up, or it becomes all too difficult.

This is a double edged sword – not only does it derail the current intervention, it saps your motivation to try again. Rather than adopt the all out way of thinking, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist will assist you to adopt more of a balanced intervention, so that the little things can still be looked forward to, and savoured.

  1. An Accredited Exercise Physiologist will focus on the subjective


I should preface this last point by saying that objective measurements and results certainly have their place in an exercise intervention and surely must be utilised to encourage long term adherence and motivation. However, when trying to tap into that intrinsic motivation, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist will help you to shift the focus from what you see, to what you feel.

An Exercise Physiologist will help you find activities and exercise that promote your mental health and wellbeing, and ensure that your exercise becomes something that you eagerly anticipate, enjoy doing, and reflect upon positively.

Rather than choosing interventions that focus purely on achieving the greatest amount objective measures, yet leave you unhappy, an Exercise Physiologist will help you choose activities that can be maintained over the course of time, and ones that build upon your healthy relationship with exercise.

So, if you are stuck in a rut, not quite sure where to begin, worried about exercise, book in to see an Accredited Exercise Physiologist. A healthy relationship with exercise needn’t be reserved for the athletes, or the fitness elite – it encompasses every individual, and is there to be enjoyed regardless of life’s circumstances. Exercise Physiologists will help you find your own reason’s WHY.

To contact your local accredited exercise physiologist, click here.


Blog contributor bottom banner_Phil Caruso