Exercise is frequently promoted as a stress reliever, but depending on your motivation, it might not have the same results for everyone. According to a recent study published in the Psychology of Sport andExercise, intrinsic motivation—which refers to engaging in an activity for the enjoyment of doing so, as opposed to extrinsic motivation—plays a significant influence in raising life satisfaction levels. Both sorts are possible—and perhaps even preferable—but for stress-reducing effects, the intrinsic drive appears to be more crucial.
For instance, you might exercise for the purpose of gaining muscle or for health reasons, both of which are outside motivations. To do that, pick a passion-based activity that gives you intrinsic gratification, such as dance, weightlifting, martial arts, or HIIT sessions.
In a recent study, experts evaluated the stress levels and physical activity of 864 young people in Switzerland between the ages of 16 and 25. Ten months later, compared to their counterparts, individuals who enjoyed being active had lower stress levels. The most likely explanation is that intrinsic motivation, which not only encourages consistency but also has benefits for mental health, especially for young people, according to lead researcher Silvia Meyer, PhD(c), of the Department of Psychology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, did not link physical activity alone to stress and life satisfaction.
"Provided that exercise is intrinsically motivated, exercise can help people manage stress better," Dr. Meyer says. "For young people, that's important because adolescence is a challenging period of life, and susceptibility to stress is more pronounced."
Extrinsic motivation can be effective—using competition as a motivator, for example—but it also carries the risk of disappointment if the desired outcomes are not achieved. Extrinsic motivation can also be harmful if it is linked to a pessimistic viewpoint, such as feeling like a failure if the activity is skipped that day.
"Physical activity on its own may not be sufficient to buffer the kinds of decreases in life satisfaction that are caused by increased stress," says Dr. Meyer. "Intrinsic motivation is a key ingredient that drives positive feelings."
According to earlier research, even though the most recent study was only conducted on young people, the findings are likely to be applicable to anyone looking for a stress-relieving exercise routine. For instance, a study of adults published in the journal Neuroscience Research involved monitoring neural activity during tasks that were both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. Researchers discovered that each type had a distinctive impact on the brain and that intrinsically motivated activities deepened the area of the brain associated with pleasure and fulfillment.
According to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, having this kind of motivation also increases your likelihood of regularly exercising, which can reduce your chance of developing:
According to Mike Matthews, CPT, author of The Little Black Book of Workout Drive, a technique if you haven't yet discovered your source of intrinsic motivation for exercise is to continually trying new things.
"The starting point when trying to find an activity you love is to think of this as building a lifestyle, and that might involve doing several types of exercise," he says. "That means noticing when you're truly enjoying an activity for its own sake, and then adding more of that into your exercise mix."
To determine if an activity "sticks" and you start looking forward to those sessions, he advises trying it for at least a month or two. On a related issue, Matthews advises cutting ties with an activity if you once loved it but it's been making you uninspired lately. People's preferences vary as they get older, and sometimes that means being truthful about how you feel when you have to perform your regular routine.
"There are so many ways of getting and staying fit, there's no reason to keep doing something that doesn't make you feel fired up," he says.
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