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      Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review


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          Motivation is a critical factor in supporting sustained exercise, which in turn is associated with important health outcomes. Accordingly, research on exercise motivation from the perspective of self-determination theory (SDT) has grown considerably in recent years. Previous reviews have been mostly narrative and theoretical. Aiming at a more comprehensive review of empirical data, this article examines the empirical literature on the relations between key SDT-based constructs and exercise and physical activity behavioral outcomes.


          This systematic review includes 66 empirical studies published up to June 2011, including experimental, cross-sectional, and prospective studies that have measured exercise causality orientations, autonomy/need support and need satisfaction, exercise motives (or goal contents), and exercise self-regulations and motivation. We also studied SDT-based interventions aimed at increasing exercise behavior. In all studies, actual or self-reported exercise/physical activity, including attendance, was analyzed as the dependent variable. Findings are summarized based on quantitative analysis of the evidence.


          The results show consistent support for a positive relation between more autonomous forms of motivation and exercise, with a trend towards identified regulation predicting initial/short-term adoption more strongly than intrinsic motivation, and intrinsic motivation being more predictive of long-term exercise adherence. The literature is also consistent in that competence satisfaction and more intrinsic motives positively predict exercise participation across a range of samples and settings. Mixed evidence was found concerning the role of other types of motives (e.g., health/fitness and body-related), and also the specific nature and consequences of introjected regulation. The majority of studies have employed descriptive (i.e., non-experimental) designs but similar results are found across cross-sectional, prospective, and experimental designs.


          Overall, the literature provides good evidence for the value of SDT in understanding exercise behavior, demonstrating the importance of autonomous (identified and intrinsic) regulations in fostering physical activity. Nevertheless, there remain some inconsistencies and mixed evidence with regard to the relations between specific SDT constructs and exercise. Particular limitations concerning the different associations explored in the literature are discussed in the context of refining the application of SDT to exercise and physical activity promotion, and integrating these with avenues for future research.

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          Most cited references69

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          Self-determination and persistence in a real-life setting: toward a motivational model of high school dropout.

          The purpose of this study was to propose and test a motivational model of high school dropout. The model posits that teachers, parents, and the school administration's behaviors towards students influence students' perceptions of competence and autonomy. The less autonomy supportive the social agents' behaviors are, the less positive the students' perceptions of competence and autonomy. In turn, the less positive students' perceptions are, the lower their level of self-determined school motivation are. Finally, low levels of self-determined motivation lead students to develop intentions to drop out of high school, which are later implemented, leading to actual dropout behavior. This model was tested with high school students (N = 4,537) by means of a prospective design. Results from analyses of variance and a structural equation modeling analysis (with LISREL) were found to support the model for all participants and for each gender separately.
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            The structure of goal contents across 15 cultures.

            The authors investigated the structure of goal contents in a group of 1,854 undergraduates from 15 cultures around the world. Results suggested that the 11 types of goals the authors assessed were consistently organized in a circumplex fashion across the 15 cultures. The circumplex was well described by positioning 2 primary dimensions underlying the goals: intrinsic (e.g., self-acceptance, affiliation) versus extrinsic (e.g., financial success, image) and self-transcendent (e.g., spirituality) versus physical (e.g., hedonism). The circumplex model of goal contents was also quite similar in both wealthier and poorer nations, although there were some slight cross-cultural variations. The relevance of these results for several theories of motivation and personality are discussed. ((c) 2005 APA, all rights reserved).
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              The independent effects of goal contents and motives on well-being: it's both what you pursue and why you pursue it.

              The assertion that both the content of goals and the motives behind goals affect psychological well-being has been controversial. Three studies examined this issue directly, showing that both what goals people pursue (i.e., whether they strive for extrinsic vs. intrinsic goal contents) and why people pursue them (i.e., whether they strive for autonomous vs. controlled motives) make significant independent contributions to psychological well-being. The pattern emerged in between-person and within-person studies of cross-sectional well-being and also emerged in a year-long study of prospective change in well-being. Implications for prescriptive theories of happiness are discussed.

                Author and article information

                Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act
                Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act
                The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity
                BioMed Central
                22 June 2012
                : 9
                : 78
                [1 ]Faculty of Human Kinetics, Technical University of Lisbon, Estrada da Costa, 1495-688, Cruz Quebrada, Portugal
                [2 ]School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences, Bangor University, Bangor, UK
                [3 ]Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, USA
                Copyright ©2012 Teixeira et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

                This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

                : 19 December 2011
                : 22 June 2012

                Nutrition & Dietetics
                Nutrition & Dietetics


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