Self-Determination Theory

As an Exercise Physiologist one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the job is making exercise enjoyable for each person I see. This journey largely centres around what is motivating someone at any given time. A theory that does a great job of explaining this is the Self-Determination Theory.

Self-Determination Theory has been used for several years in the exercise world as one way of looking at motivation. The framework states that human motivation lies along a scale with varying degrees of autonomy. Autonomy refers to behaviours being self-determined.

This consists of both internal and external motivators. Internal motivation put simply, involves motivation derived from the act of engaging in the behaviour. For example, someone who runs because they enjoy the ‘runners high’.

Several rules make up the external part of the motivational framework. These rules decrease in their level of self-determination.

  • Integrated regulation – a behaviour is an important part of their identity and is consistent with personal values. “I’m a runner, it’s what I do”
  • Identified regulation – being motivated to perform something because it results in outcomes that are important to you. “I exercise as it’s good for my bone health”
  • Controlling regulations – the need to obtain intrapersonal rewards such as pride or to avoid punishments such as guilt. This can also be external, such as pressure from a partner or GP to exercise.

Over my time as an Exercise Physiologist, one of the biggest determining factors of successful outcomes was consistency in completing the recommended exercise programme. My view is that consistency is also one of the most important tools in motivation. Consistency in any task can be influenced by a range of factors, but there are always a few little tricks that can help.

  1. Make it snappier.

If you are struggling to find an hour every day, change it up. All you need is 10 or 15 minutes of intense exercise, like high-intensity interval training (HIIT), to get started. This method can also be used for exercise rehabilitation. Attach your resistance band to the bathroom door so when your cleaning your teeth you can exercise! Try and spread your exercises out over the day too if you are struggling for time.

2. Make it bite-size.

Start small by building one habit up at a time. As the old saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it burned in one”. By trying to make too many large changes at once, it can result in overload, soreness and burning out. Begin by committing two to three days a week to exercise, small steps = Success.

3. Make it a routine.

When you have any ritual, you don’t have to think about it, it just happens. The same goes for exercise, once a habit forms there is no longer any decision-making involved. As we know the mind can come up with all sort of excuses when deciding what to do. If the mind and body are on the same page, there will be no internal debate.

For more information on exercise rehabilitation programmes or help finding your motivation please contact Absolute Balance.


Michael Buswell (B.Sc. –  Exercise Physiology)
Senior Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) (ESSAM)

Duncan, L.R., Hall, C.R., Wilson, P.M. et al. Exercise motivation: a cross-sectional analysis examining its relationships with frequency, intensity, and duration of exercise. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 7, 7 (2010).


Strachan, S. M., Brawley, L. R., Spink, K. S., & Jung, M. E. (2009). Strength of Exercise Identity and Identity-Exercise Consistency: Affective and Social Cognitive Relationships. Journal of Health Psychology, 14(8), 1196–1206.