What a nine-year study on desire for movement teaches us about exercise motivation: exercise physiologist available for interviews

It is well-documented that physical activity has a positive impact on health. In April 2021 researchers suggested exercise may even be protective against severe COVID-19. Internal motivation appears to be a key component to a physically active lifestyle for many Americans who do not get the recommended amount of exercise. Motivation may be hard to come by in a world where depression has increased and in-person fitness opportunities have decreased … or is it?

A new series of studies, published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggest there are certain triggers that influence an individual's motivation to move. Examining these “motivation windows” can have implications for health and weight management and inform the fields of exercise science, performance and physical therapy.

“I was having a conversation with a former mentor about cravings, generally for alcohol, cigarettes or drugs,” said Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, PhD, FACSM, lead author of the study and exercise physiologist, Yale New Haven Hospital. “I wondered if people could experience the same type of urges for movement and exercise.”

This conversation inspired a years-long study looking into the factors that motivate people to move, defined as “cravings to move,” by tracking how people feel about movement in various situations such as after exercising or while sitting in a lecture.

“Many of my patients tell me, ‘I’m just not motivated,’ as if it is a static trait that doesn’t budge,” said Dr. Stults, who works in the Digestive Health multispecialty bariatric program at Yale New Haven Hospital and designs the exercise routines for patients. “What we saw in these studies and what I see in practice is after a motivation-focused event, such as an exercise intake interview or a physical activity education session tailored to the patient, almost everyone craves some kind of movement.”

To measure this urge to move, Dr. Stults and team created CRAVE: Cravings for Rest and Volitional Energy Expenditure, the first validated instrument to measure feelings of desire for movement and rest.

It has been argued that people are naturally disinclined to move from an evolutionary standpoint to conserve calories. CRAVE was invented to explore the idea that motivation states for exercise and physical activity do in fact exist – even if they are being drowned out by other desires. The results of the study, which included 1,035 participants many followed for two years, support this idea.

Participants reported fluctuating desires to move. The findings suggest cravings appear in windows throughout the day and vary based on situations, such as sitting for a long time or getting ready to exercise. Those who made exercise a habit developed the strongest desires or wants for exercise.

“Learning about individuals’ desires to move can help people notice what makes them want to move and allow them to leverage that motivation into a healthier lifestyle,” said Dr. Stults.

Dr. Stults’ recommendations to enhance desire for movement include:

  • Labeling yourself as an “unmotivated” person may be holding you back – motivation comes and goes and is not a steady trait
  • Set simple goals and clear expectations
  • Create a fun environment by uncluttering your space, turning on extra lights and upbeat music and putting on comfortable clothing
  • Take a deep breath to relieve tension

If you are starting as an exercise novice, consult with a credentialed trainer, exercise physiologist or other fitness professional.

“Listen to your body, it might be telling you to move.”