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What motivates us to exercise and what keeps us motivated in the long run?

Scientists investigate the factors that help motivate students to exercise as a way of managing stress.

Is exercise that good for you?

The short answer is yes. Regular exercise and high levels of fitness are associated with a reduction in premature risk of death from any cause.

It has also been shown to be associated with reducing the risk of suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, bone and joint diseases, heart disease, obesity, hypertension, depression, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s.

These benefits are seen in both men and women, across age and race.

Exercise is often prescribed to help alleviate some of the symptoms of these chronic diseases after they occur.

Exercise has been shown to have benefits for cancer patients, patients that exercise experience less fatigue and better quality of life when going through chemotherapy.

Resistance training and aerobic exercise have also been shown to benefit diabetic patients by improving glucose regulation.

Exercise doesn’t only have benefits for the body but also for the mind. Incredibly regular exercise can regulate hormones such as endorphins and serotonin to help lift mood and prevent anxiety.

It is also a great way to manage stress because it can regulate stress hormones such as adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and glucocorticoids.

To reap the benefits associated with exercise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get 150 to 300 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes to 5 hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity each week.

Examples of moderate-intensity activities include; brisk walks, swimming, cycling, general yard work, or things like power (Vinyasa) yoga.

What motivates people to exercise?

If exercise is so good for us then why is it that some people are active to the point of addiction and others struggle to get moving?

Motivation to be active is quite a complex equation and involves numerous factors that influence our behavior

Things like:

  • age
  • general health
  • environment
  • genetic factors
  • education level
  • ethnic origin
  • weight
  • stress
  • social support

These factors can affect our motivation to exercise. Our perception of exercise can also affect our willingness to be active.

Things like the perceived effort involved or our confidence in our ability to be physically active (behavioral control) and our ideas about being active in a specific situation (self-efficacy) all contribute to our decision to exercise.

Physical activity is perhaps the most modifiable risk factor contributing to disease risk and has a huge impact on public health.

Understanding what motivates people to exercise is critically important as it produces evidence to help implement effective public health interventions.

What motivates students to use exercise as a way to deal with stress?

In a US study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, scientists wanted to know what factors motivated medical students to use exercise as a means of dealing with stress and burnout.

The researchers surveyed 135 first-year medical students.

The students engaged in less than 150 minutes of aerobic physical activity per week and didn’t have a medical condition limiting their activity.

An online survey conducted

The researchers conducted an online survey and used the multi-theory model to predict the factors that motivated students to exercise either continuously or intermittently.

The researchers asked questions about various factors affecting motivation, they included things like the perceived advantages and disadvantages of exercise, environmental factors (having a place to exercise or access to equipment), behavioral constructs (students’ belief in themselves and their abilities), social constructs (asking whether students would get help from family, friends or peers) and their ability to adapt to a change in plans.

They also asked students about their plans to increase their exercise to 150 minutes per week.

What was found in this study?

The scientists found that three main factors were associated with an increase in the motivation of students to exercise. The data showed that the behavior construct was the most highly correlated factor to motivation.

Students needed to be able to envision themselves doing the exercise in the future and have external sources of confidence, such as an encouraging mentor.

Social environment and emotional transformation were also factors that were shown to be important for sustaining the motivation to exercise.

This could be finding friends who exercise regularly or getting support from family members.

An example of emotional transformation would be when a student experiences anger to sets a goal of exercising for 30 minutes whenever they feel anger.

In this case, students would use exercise as an outlet for stress.

There are some limitations to the study that prevent its application to the general public. The first is that the data collected in this study was self-reported which introduces systematic error or measurement bias (answers are either over or understated relative to the true measurement).

The use of accelerometers to collect data on student activity would have been helpful in determining if the students’ perceptions of their exercise outputs were accurate.

Findings of the study

The findings of this particular study cannot be applied to the general public as a small sample size was used that consisted predominantly of white first-year medical students.

The study was designed to be a cross-sectional analysis, this type of analysis produces correlated research and only assesses statistical associations.

These studies do not provide any evidence of the causal relationship between motivational factors and exercise.

The study did provide insight into what inspires students to use exercise for stress relief and this information can be used to further promote this healthy behavior in other students.

Vinayak K. Nahar, MD, Ph.D. and co-author of this study stated in a press release, “Accessing internal and external sources of inspiration and resilience is an effective and sustainable model for positive change.”


  1. Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W. & Bredin, S. S. Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Cmaj 174, 801-809 (2006).
  2. Penedo, F. J. & Dahn, J. R. Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current opinion in psychiatry 18, 189-193 (2005).
  3. Anderson, E. H. & Shivakumar, G. Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxiety. Frontiers in psychiatry 4, 27 (2013).
  4. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd edition, <> (2018).
  5. Bauman, A. E. et al. Correlates of physical activity: why are some people physically active and others not? The lancet 380, 258-271 (2012).
  6. Nahar, V., Wilkerson, A., Stephens, P., Kim, R. & Sharma, M. Using the Multitheory Model to Predict Initiation and Sustenance of Physical Activity Behavior Among Osteopathic Medical Students. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association 119, 479-487 (2019).
  7. Brennan, J. Study finds changes in mindset key to helping college students exercise more <> (2019).
Tarryn Bourhill MSc PhD Candidate
Tarryn Bourhill MSc PhD Candidate
Tarryn has a Master’s degree in Molecular Medicine from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Calgary. Tarryn specializes in cancer, oncolytic viral therapy and stem cell research. She is passionate about scientific communication and enjoys turning complicated ideas into approachable and engaging conversations. In her spare time, Tarryn is a keen baker and a photography enthusiast.


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