Because it makes ya feel good.

by Ali Schumacher on September 26, 2012

Image courtesy of

I have to admit, I am one of those weirdos who openly enjoys exercising on a regular basis.  If I go a few days without hitting the track or gym I can’t help but feel a little bit off and when asked why I work out so often my reply is consistently, “because it makes me feel good.”

Although my profession of love towards physical activity can sometimes be met with a scoff or odd look, new research suggests that this “pleasure” motivation behind exercise might not be so strange after all.

A study published in the Journal of Obesity last spring argues that the way in which pro-exercise messages attempt to motivate their audience can, in turn, influence overweight women and men in different ways.

The study sample consisted of over 1,500 overweight and obese men and women, aged 40-60 years.  Each participant was randomly chosen to receive one of three advertisements, each framing  physical activity in a different way: the “better health” frame, the “weight loss” frame, and the “daily well-being” frame.  Once presented with the ad, the men and women were asked a series of questions regarding their body image and motivation to work out.

Their number one finding? — Women who were presented with an exercise advertisement emphasizing the effects of physical activity on one’s “daily well-being” reported more autonomous motivation for the activity than those women presented with advertisements focused on weight loss or the health benefits of exercise.

The researchers attribute these findings to the different sources of motivation that these ads tap into.  Losing weight and striving for “better” health are motivations that are inherently external to the individual.  Women who saw these ads felt that they should work out because they would feel like a bad person if they didn’t.  They should lose weight because society values thinness.  Neither ad struck a personal chord with the women.

The “daily well-being” ad, however, focused on increased energy, decreased stress, and generally feeling better every day as a result of physical activity.  It can be argued that this type of motivation, contrary to the other two, is more intrinsic to the individual.

Simply put–when women are motivated to work out on the basis that it will make them feel better each day, they feel more in control, and will likely participate in physical activity more frequently.

It should be noted that results were different for men, with male participants reporting greater autonomous motivation when presented with the “better health” or “weight loss” frames.  More research should be done to enumerate these differences.

Nonetheless, it’s a little reassuring to know that for many middle-aged women, Nike’s slogan of “Just do it” could more accurately be translated to “Just feel good.”



photo credit: <a href=””>Saurabh_B</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>

Margaret Freaney September 26, 2012 at 3:19 pm

I always thought that there was definitely something to just wanting to go out and get moving. I like this post, because I don’t think there is enough emphasis on peoples emotional well being. As far as for the study, it seems like the reasons for exercising were pretty even. That being said, it seems like a new frontier for the ever growing problem of obesity in America/ around the world. I would hope that there were more articles about this. Is this the first study done on the motivation for people to exercise? Good topic for a first post.


Ali Schumacher September 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm

The study was based on Self Determination Theory, which from my understanding is a very popular theory in the field of health communication right now. One of the theory’s main assertions is that autonomy is a necessary component in adopting and being motivated towards a particular behavior. This is the first article I have read about this sort of motivation and physical activity specifically but I am definitely on the look out for more! I will keep you updated should I find any.
Thanks for your comment!

Quintus September 26, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I also enjoyed this post, I will think about it when I am sitting on the park bench watching all the physical activists doing their thing as they all belt past me.

Jennifer September 26, 2012 at 4:22 pm

losing weight alone is not a path to good health. healthy lifestyle changes (including enjoyable physical activity!) will make people feel better, and will do so for the long haul, rather than weight loss alone, which is 95% likely to fail (within a few years, lost weight will return, often “with interest,” or a higher weight than before the weight loss efforts started). so many women have experiences with weight loss pursuits, and the majority of them have experienced first hand how ineffective it is, that this study is showing what they’ve known for years: weight loss does not equal good health, and shaming someone (by making them feel “bad” for not trying to lose weight or succeeding when they do try) has never ever made someone thin OR healthy.

Studies show that people who feel good and feel good about themselves are generally healthier, and I’m glad research is finally specifically showing that ad campaigns that shame or bully the target audience are less effective than campaigns that empower.

the other thing i wish we could focus on more is that our obsession with “good health” is detrimental. Health is some golden standard we’ve placed on a pedestal, and if we don’t have it, we have “nothing.” (Facing adversity, how many people have said “well at least you have your health!”) That doesn’t mean that someone with a chronic illness shouldn’t work towards feeling better, and campaigns that are inclusive of EVERYONE (who doesn’t want to feel better?? but good health isn’t obtainable for everyone) are going to be far more likely to succeed than oppressive or marginalizing campaigns.

i’m glad to see this topic addressed! this was a great start, and it might be helpful to address the way these PSA’s and ads typically work (shame and blame, with a high failure rate) to emphasize the significance of this study.

Ali Schumacher September 26, 2012 at 7:05 pm

I completely agree. People should not exercise because they feel they have to or that they should, they should do it because they want to. It’s not about burning calories, it’s about being active. It is nice to see research showing that motivating people to “feel good” is a) effective and b) perhaps more-so than weight-loss or health benefit frames.
Your point about our obsession with “good health” is very interesting as well. Health should be something we achieve through focusing on ourselves and our well-being. Feeling good is a much more tangible outcome than “being healthy.” Would love to hear more from you!
Thank you for your comments!

Jennifer September 27, 2012 at 6:21 pm

I stumbled across this NPR blog post yesterday that seems relevant here, about a new anti-obesity campaign (which I like to call “eliminationist rhetoric campaigns”) that shames parents and children both, despite research showing how ineffective shaming actually is. The link to the Jezebel piece was also pretty relevant.

Ali Schumacher September 27, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Incredibly relevant. It reminded me of the campaign that ran in Georgia last year, “Stop sugarcoating it Georgia.”

The two are very similar. They call attention to the problem (which we do need), but don’t provide an “out” for the audience. Let’s help people figure out how to fight obesity and stop simply pointing out the fact that they are overweight.

Kurt September 26, 2012 at 4:51 pm

First of all, I hate you and your love of exercise.
Really nice, well-thought out post. Question though – do you really have evidence that the “daily well-being” feeling actually increases performance? Did these women actually work out, or just feel better about the idea of working out? It may be that feeling happy with an idea and actually doing something are 2 very different things. Perhaps your love of working out does not stem from a daily sense of well-being. You just think it does, and in actuality, you are deranged in some other way.

Ali Schumacher September 26, 2012 at 7:16 pm

First of all, I’m going to assume that the Kurt who posted this comment is the same Kurt that is biologically related to me and therefore will disregard your first point and last point.
To your second point, I have not come across any study that connects this motivation to actual physical performance. This particular study just assessed how these advertisements affected the participants reported motivation (i.e. whether they were more autonomously motivated or externally motivated) as well as their perceived body image.
The theory behind the advertisements, however, argues that the more autonomously motivated an individual, the more likely it is that they will begin and/or sustain a behavior. I’ve read articles that actually connect these abstract motivations to a particular behavior (specifically smoking cessation) but am anxiously awaiting to see the direct connection made to exercise.
Thank you for your comment!

John Spevacek September 27, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Back in the day I used to race bicycles, so training daily was de rigour. If I skipped a day, I just never felt right.

Been decades since I felt like that. Thanks for reminding me.

By the way, the html for the photo credits isn’t quite right, as it is still visible. Worse yet, I can’t see what to correct, other than maybe the quotation marks. I’ve seen it happen where I will prep something in Word, cut-and-paste it to the blog and then it didn’t read correctly. Something with “smart quotes” maybe?

Ali Schumacher September 27, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Thanks for the pointer! I’ll be sure to make sure it’s all correct next time and see if I can fix up the one on this post.
I appreciate the feedback.

Ginny Kendall September 28, 2012 at 11:36 am

This was a valuable post. So much of exercising is mental, but you don’t mention the release of endorphins that occurs when we exercise briskly. I think those brain chemicals are the reason I can feel less tired after a workout than when I began. I am not surprised that most women responded best to the “feel better about myself” idea. I work out with a group of women at least 3 times a week. That group support and encouragement is, for me, a factor in keeping it up, even on days when I just don’t feel like it.

Ali Schumacher September 28, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Gotta love that endorphin high. Just last night after my soccer game my friend asked me if the reason I was so chatty was because I had just worked out? :)
This study in particular was looking at the motivation of “it will make you feel better” and did not delve into the physiology and whatnot of why that is (although still important, I feel).
I also love your comment about social support as an aid in continuing to be physically active. Sometimes it is nice to have someone hold you accountable for hitting the gym, especially on those days when sweats and a couch have never sounded so appealing.
Thanks for your insight!

Elizabeth Fryer October 1, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Hi Ali,
Andrew Maynard let his LinkedIn connections know that students have started keeping health blogs and has asked for comments, saying that what you all desire most of all are “critical comments that help them improve.” I am a science editor and chose your post to read first because I too enjoy exercise.
The title of your post is quite casual, which speaks to an informal audience, and that’s the tone used throughout. Therefore, the term “autonomous motivation” should be defined, at least briefly. The link to the article explaining the term is not sufficient. A quick scan of the linked-to article did not yield the term. So, this is the scene: I was reading your blog post, but to get the full point of your writing I was directed to another site (generally, you don’t want readers to leave your site). But to find out what autonomous motivation means, I’d have to read an entire other article. Not something I desire to do.
The first rule of professional writing, after “know your audience,” is don’t make your reader have to work to get your meaning. Provide everything they need right there, so they don’t have to click links that might not work or look up info.
And, about exercise, be careful. I too started exercising in college, 5 days a week, Wednesdays and Sundays off. Very regimented. I kept that up for a decade or so, and for the next decade I was working out every day, taking off a couple days a month. At 41, as a result of not allowing my body sufficient time off, I was diagnosed with adrenal burnout, which comes with life-changing digestive issues and requires a year or two off from intense exercise to rehab from. Please be careful. And if you take 2 days between workouts, don’t worry. You’re doing your body good.
Good luck to you.

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