Why would someone sign up to run a half marathon when they could just run 13 miles around their neighbourhood? The majority of people do this because they are extrinsically (externally) motivated.
There is nothing wrong with being extrinsically motivated; it is often the driving force behind training and exercising. Setting external goals such as events and challenges is a highly effective way of keeping engaged and training for longer as you prepare for an event.
Extrinsic vs intrinsic
Motivation is the driving force behind our behaviour. Intrinsic motivation comes from within; it is an internal striving to be good at something. Research indicates that those who undertake activities or exercise for their own self-satisfaction are happier, because intrinsic motivation is about passion and love for what we do. Extrinsic motivation is being motivated due to a reward; working so that we get paid, receive a prize or recognition and praise.
Psychological research1 says that to effectively change behaviour, we need to become more self-motivating. So, how can we establish this shift from external motivation to internal motivation?
In theory ...
Self Determination Theories (SDT) can explain how social factors help or undermine actions and behaviours. The most important factors emerging from these theories are that we are motivated to participate in physical activity because we strive to be autonomous, competent and to get along with other people. Mastering the challenges of physical activity gives a feeling of self-efficacy and confidence, which is motivating.
One of the theories in SDT is Cognitive Evaluative Theory,2 which centres on intrinsic motivation in that it deals specifically with rewards and ego. It suggests that the way in which rewards are viewed will play a role in determining motivation.
We are actually born to be intrinsically motivated with an innate drive to be physically active. If this motivation is reinforced through success and enjoyment, then there is a greater chance that we will maintain this behaviour throughout life. We also learn new habits through reinforcement, which strengthens the likelihood that behaviour will be repeated. The more we are rewarded for behaviours – running a half marathon and getting a medal – the more we want to continue with this behaviour to receive further reward.
However, when a reward is withdrawn, people can feel that they don't want to continue with this new behaviour. Why do something if you are no longer receiving medals or being praised for it? Unless, of course, there has been a shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.
Help yourself achieve this by doing the following:
1. Set measurable outcomes in terms of satisfaction with a feel-good factor, rather than always by time or quantity
2. Avoid comparisons with other 'competitors', as this can do a lot of motivational harm
3. Make sure long-term goals are set beyond an immediate event
Shifting from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation will benefit in the long term. Participating in an event such as a marathon is exciting, fun and satisfying, giving you a great sense of achievement. These positive feelings can start as extrinsic and be shifted towards more intrinsic goals.
Rhonda Cohen is head of the London Sport Institute at Middlesex University. She is a sport and exercise psychologist under the Health Profession Council and British Psychological Society. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine among others. www.sportpsych.co.uk
This feature was first printed in the October/November 2011 issue of Fitpro Network magazine.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Fitness Professionals Ltd or Virtual Magazine. Consult a qualified health or fitness professional before making changes to your diet or exercise.