How Much Do You Want To Exercise Right Now? Researchers Are Studying People’s In-The-Moment Motivation To Be Active

By Emma Young

Think back to the last time that you did some exercise. What exactly prompted you to get up and do it? Was it because it was scheduled? Or because you felt a strong urge to engage in some physical activity (or maybe a bit of both)?

Traditionally, researchers have explored a person’s general disposition to exercise, and looked at strategies to increase their exercise levels over a week, a month, or longer. However, a team led by Matt Stults-Kolehmainen at Yale University, Yale-New Haven Hospital and Columbia University argues in new work in Frontiers in Psychology that it’s also crucial to consider transient changes in in-the-moment wants, desires and urges for physical activity and also rest. “Typically, we understand motivation as a more stable construct – e.g. ‘I am not motivated today’ — or a trait — ‘I am not a motivated person’. This new perspective views motivation right now,” Stults-Kolehmainen says. And the team believes that by influencing these feelings, people can be encouraged to exercise more often.

In initial work, published in 2020, the team explored the concept of considering motivational states for understanding why and when people exercise. In the new paper, they report on their creation of a new scale for assessing these states.

Their CRAVE (Cravings for Rest and Volitional Energy Expenditures) scale was developed using a series of studies on students and adult participants. The final version includes a total of 10 items that relate to physical activity (a desire to “move my body” or “exert my muscles”, for example) and also being sedentary (for example, a desire to “just sit down” or “do nothing active”.) Results from across the studies showed that these feelings can change rapidly. After a 50-minute lecture, for example, a group of students reported significantly higher in-the-moment “desire to move” scores — and lower ‘”desire to rest” scores — than beforehand; a separate group that was given a gruelling treadmill task showed the opposite pattern.

These particular results might not sound surprising — but when it comes to strategies to help people to exercise more, the potential importance of these in-the-moment motivational states has been underestimated, the team thinks. A long period of sitting or a strenuous bout of exercise clearly influences these states, but other things could, too. As the researchers suggest, future studies should explore the potential influence of the time of day, for example, or an individual’s eating patterns. Some influences may also last longer: the team’s two-year study of a community group of adults, reported in the new paper, found that the participants’ in-the-moment motivation to move trended down over this period, while their motivation to rest trended up. “As such, more resources are needed to understand how desires might evolve over an extended period of time (e.g. seasonally, over years) and how they can be intervened upon,” they write.

Ultimately the team hopes to see interventions that trigger or enhance immediate desires to exercise. Stults-Kolehmainen is optimistic about this. He gives this example: “Interestingly, just reading about wants or desires to move and be active might instigate wants/desires to move and be active — and humans are actually capable of perceiving this and, we believe, acting on it.”

Personally, I know that anytime I see anyone exercising in a movie (I’m thinking Sarah Connor, say, or even Rocky Balboa), I feel a real urge to exercise, too. If I could time that exposure to a point in the day when exercise was actually practical (rather than when I’m on the sofa with the kids), I could imagine it working to push me up and out.

Measurement of Motivation States for Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior: Development and Validation of the CRAVE Scale

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest