SDT: Start Dedicated Training with Self-Determination Theory


This is the time of year for change. Whether it is changing weather patterns, changing wardrobes, or the simple act of hanging a brand-new calendar on the side of the refrigerator, January seems to bring out the best intentions in people. This extends to the arena of health/fitness/exercise.

As personal trainers, we see our fair share of newly motivated individuals at the gym and community centers as January unfolds. All eager and excited, these are the folks who claim they want to change and say they are 100% committed to a new lifestyle, only to fall by the wayside when they learn what is actually involved. As it turns out, social science has much to do with this phenomenon; if we can learn the mindset behind such behavior, we will possess the power to help clients over motivational hurdles.

Experts have coined the term “Self-Determination Theory”, or SDT, to explain this mode of action and its accompanying thought processes. Self-determination theory suggests that people are motivated to grow and/or change by the fulfillment of innate psychological needs. The theory identifies three key psychological needs that are believed to be both innate and universal:

~ The need for competence (gaining mastery of tasks and learning different skills)

~ The need for connectedness (social context: needing to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to others within the same environment)

~ The need for autonomy (feeling in control of one’s own behaviors and goals)


While many individuals are motivated to act or change by virtue of external rewards, such as money, prizes, or acclaim (known as extrinsic motivation), self-determination theory focuses primarily on internal sources of motivation, such as a need to gain knowledge or independence (known as intrinsic motivation). Goal contents are differentiated according to the extent to which their pursuit is likely to satisfy basic psychological needs. The concept of intrinsic motivation, or doing things purely for their own sake, plays an important role in self-determination theory. Experts suggest that when individuals experience and fulfill the aforementioned 3 goals, they become self-determined and therefore more capable of developing the intrinsic motivation necessary to pursue activities of interest.

How Can We Help?

As personal trainers, we must establish the following as part of building a rapport with clients:

~ Provide a meaningful rationale for the various aspects of training

~ Acknowledge the individual’s feelings

~ Convey choice, thereby helping to promote the subsequent self-regulation of behavior

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. Originating from a “humanistic perspective”, being fundamentally centered on the fulfillment of needs, self-actualization, and the realization of human potential, self-determination theory helps us to unravel the mysteries of human personality and motivated behavior. Once we master the tasks of listening carefully and honing in on what drives a client, we can plan training programs that truly respect where a client lies on the exercise continuum.

What Seems To Be Missing?

Many people lack sufficient motivation to participate in the recommended 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise or physical activity per week. Studies conducted in other countries reveal that approximately 40% of Europeans agree with the following statement:

“Being physically active does not really interest me – I would rather do other things with my spare time”.

Why is this the case?

The answer to this query has many dimensions. First of all, such sentiments could stem from the notion that individuals may not be sufficiently interested in exercise, or value its outcomes enough, to make it a priority in their lives. Secondly, some people may not feel sufficiently competent at physical activities, perceiving themselves neither physically fit nor skilled enough to exercise, possibly compounded by health limitations that present a barrier to movement.

In addition to those who are unmotivated, another source of short-lived persistence in exercise behaviors comes from people who express personal motivation to exercise regularly and do in fact initiate exercise behaviors, but with little follow through. Specifically, a significant percentage of people may exercise because of controlled motivations, whereby participation in activities like going to the gym or running regularly is based upon a feeling of “having to” rather than truly “wanting to” participate. Controlled forms of motivation, which by definition are not autonomous, exist predominantly when the activity is perceived simply as a means to an end, such as an insulin-dependent diabetic losing weight to improve A1C levels. We also see this phenomenon associated with motives or goals such as improving appearance; we all know the client for whom fitting into that little black dress for an upcoming high school reunion is the driving force behind her gym attendance. In fact, the pervasiveness of social and medical pressures toward weight loss, while presented with the best of intentions, prove ill suited to promote sustained increases in physical activity levels.

Since a disproportionately large number of individuals are either unmotivated / not sufficiently motivated to exercise, or are driven by external factors that will not lead to sustained activity, it is incumbent upon personal trainers to challenge this outlook. There is obviously a need to more closely examine goals and self-regulatory features associated with adherence to exercise and physical activity. Self-determination theory helps explain the effects of qualitatively different types of motivation that can underlie behavior.

What Drives Your Clients?

When intrinsically motivated, a client may report feelings of enjoyment, personal accomplishment, and excitement. Participation in a recreational sports league purely for the enjoyment, camaraderie or challenge of the activity illustrates this point. In contrast, extrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity to obtain some outcome separate from the activity itself. Controlled forms of extrinsic motivation sometimes regulate or motivate short-term behavior, but lack the impetus to sustain maintenance over time. Yet not all extrinsic motives are controlled. When a person engages in an activity not for its inherent satisfaction but rather because of its personal value and utility (i.e., maintaining good health), we see evidence of a more autonomous form of behavioral regulation. In self-determination theory, identified and integrated forms of behavioral regulation are defined as those in which one’s actions are self-endorsed because they are personally valued. As we can see, these different forms of motivation lie along a continuum, as will our clients.

Based upon the concept of meeting psychological needs, self-determination theory can evolve into a personal trainer’s strongest ally. Understanding and providing the support necessary for high quality, autonomous forms of motivation, we can offer clients the premise that participation in exercise can be conducive to having their psychological needs realized. Consequently, the design of health behavior change interventions —-in our case, appropriately tailored workout programs — that enhance satisfaction of participants’ basic needs becomes extremely important. As more and more scientists undertake research in this field, it turns out that the vast majority of studies using measures of relative autonomy reported positive associations with exercise behavior.

In one such study, conducted by Drs. Koestner and Losier in 2002, results showed that in behavioral domains encompassing a range of activities (such as a weight-training program) varying in their intrinsic appeal, internalizing the value of the outcomes is likely to lead to greater persistence than being intrinsically motivated alone. Exercise participation is one such behavioral domain.

Campaigns to promote fitness typically market exercise in terms of health-related outcomes rather than in terms of its intrinsic value. In such cases, self-determined motivation among active individuals might come from a valuing of these outcomes, even if they also find exercise intrinsically enjoyable. Conversely, in contexts where enjoyment in and genuine interest for exercise is emphasized over the outcomes, intrinsic motivation was a more consistent predictor of adherence to a dedicated fitness plan. Thus, conceptually, being concerned about health or fitness per se cannot be easily defined as either intrinsic or extrinsic, as it depends upon what the motive means to the individual.

In accordance with self-determination theory, one study examined the relationship between autonomy support, psychological need satisfaction, motivational regulations, and exercise behavior. Fulfillment of the 3 basic psychological needs (i.e., competence, autonomy, and social connectedness) showed a positive relationship to self-determined motivational regulations. For participants of Group Exercise classes, perceptions of and subsequent feedback regarding autonomy support provided by instructors led to the predicted psychological need satisfaction. These findings support the efficacy of self-determination theory in the exercise domain.

It Starts With You

If this premise seems simple and straightforward, why do so many new fitness center members disappear by mid-February? How can trainers prevent the typical fading of interest that these clients must experience prior to quitting the gym? Is there a preferable method to go about fulfilling those three psychological needs?

It is important to realize that the psychological growth described by self-determination theory does not simply happen automatically. While people lean toward such growth, it requires continual sustenance. The key lies in that critical social support. Through our relationships and interactions with our clients, we can either foster or thwart wellbeing and personal growth. To that end, we must also be aware of actions that might be hindering gym performance. According to leading self-determination theory scientists, providing extrinsic for already intrinsically motivated behavior can actually undermine an individual’s autonomy. As the behavior becomes increasingly controlled by the external rewards, clients will begin to feel less in control of their own behavior, thereby diminishing intrinsic motivation. If you observe this relationship, offering unexpected positive encouragement and feedback regarding performance on a particular exercise can help get the client back on track with his intrinsic motivation.

As much as we want to succeed in our athletic pursuits, so too do our clients. They may not realize the internal machinations behind their attitudes, so we must be patient, compassionate, and willing to create the best possible paths to cultivate a positive attitude and its resulting success.





Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!
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