Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation to do something comes from the self-satisfaction and internal growth the person receives from doing the activity.  Extrinsic motivation comes through rewards and punishments for doing something.  Within the field of exercise, intrinsic motivation has been shown to be linked to better physical and mental health than extrinsic motivation.  Athletic identity refers to the degree to which people think of themselves as athletes.

The purpose of this questionnaire-based study was to examine the relationship between both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators for people who identify themselves as athletic. The researchers hypothesized “that more external and intrinsic exercise motivation would be related to a higher level of total athletic identity and a greater amount of exercise” (p. 238).


Participants came from the general population of the United States and Australia.  In all, 400 people (200 from each country) participated in the research.  There were 202 women and 198 men.  The mean age was approximately 46 with a range from 18 to 89 years.

Data Collection

Each participant was asked to complete four questionnaires:  

  1. The Behavioral Regulation in Exercise Questionnaire (BREQ-2) assessed motivation for exercise 
  2. The Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS) assessed the degree to which an the individual identified himself as an athlete, with the extremes being fully self-referent and socially-referent
  3.  the Godin Leisure Time Exercise Questionnaire measured frequency and intensity of exercise
  4. The Life Satisfaction Scale measured overall life satisfaction.

 All of these questionnaires have good, previously-determined reliability and validity.

The questionnaires were administered online. A “forced response before progression” was used so that participants had to complete all the surveys in succession. The 400 participants who completed all of the surveys were among 475 who were originally in the sample group. If a participant did not complete all four surveys, then they were not included in the data analysis.

Data Analysis and Results

The researchers used the SPSS statistical package to analyze the data.  Descriptive statistics showed that participants from the United States and Australia were not significantly different on most measures, but those from the United States did have higher measures of athletic identity.  

People who self-identify as an athlete are more motivated to exercise and are more satisfied with life

Correlation analysis indicated significant associations between both higher external and higher intrinsic motivation and total, self-referent, and social-referent athletic identity.  External motivation was more-highly correlated with social-referent athletic identity (r = 0.34) while intrinsic motivation was more-highly correlated with self-referent athletic identity (r = 0.44).  In addition, all measures of athletic identity were significantly associated with the other measures taken in the survey, including amount of exercise and life satisfaction.

Discussion, Limitations, and Future Research

These results were largely in keeping with previous research in this field.  People who identified themselves as athletes were more motivated to exercise so they exercised more and were generally more satisfied with life.  The study did have several limitations, however, that must be considered.  

First, it is not clear whether athletic identity results in exercise motivation or if the reverse is true, that exercise motivation results in higher athletic identity.  That is, the researchers could not determine if there is a bi-directional relationship between these two variables.  The researchers propose longitudinal studies be carried out to determine the development of this relationship.

Second, the results of the study are based solely on self-report measures.  The researchers suggest future research in this field include some type of observer ratings.  

Third, the sample included a broad range of people from just two countries and incorporated just a few psychological factors.  Thus, future research could focus on subgroups of people, as well as on how other psychological characteristics and performance variables, such as winning and losing, affect athletic identity, exercise motivation, and other psychological outcomes.  (Though not mentioned in the article, the researchers hint at additional research being conducted in other countries, particularly those that have different values concerning exercise and athletics.)

The researchers also propose future research into interventions that could help individuals develop different aspects of athletic identity and motivation to exercise.  The goal would be to increase the amount of exercise and enhance psychological well-being.  Such research could lead to the development of “optimally effective” sports and exercise programs for specific populations.  Finally, the researchers propose exploration of interventions that could combine internal and external motivation to exercise in an attempt to boost athletic identity, which might then result in increased exercise performance and psychological well-being.


Schutte, N. S., & McNeil, D. G. (2015). Athletic identity mediates between exercise motivation and beneficial outcomes. Journal of Sport Behavior, 38(2), 234-252.

Author: Neil Starr