Motivational Factors Affecting Exercise in Children

“Nine out of 10 of our kids today could grow up with dangerous amounts of fat in their bodies” (Change4Life)

“Half of all UK seven-year old do not do enough exercise, with girls far less active than boys” (Walsh, 2013)


Photo retrieved October 21, 2013, from

Exercise throughout childhood is vital in the development of children into healthy adolescents, and can reduce the risk of inactivity related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers and psychological depression and anxiety. Therefore it is important that children receive the motivation and encouragement to take up and continue physical activity.

According to the Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura, 1986) children are more motivated to exercise if they believe that they will gain benefit from it and that it is an achievable task. Once a child has taken up exercise there are many factors that could cause the child to disengage and fall back into a state of inactivity. Such factors could be injury, social exclusion and task failure. Many children would overcome these factors by themselves over time and re-engage in exercise, however, some children will not want to re-engage and require external motivation. Marlatt et al. (1995) found that these children might have a high action self-efficacy, where they are confident in their ability to perform exercise but are being held back from re-engaging in exercise after a bad experience due to a low recovery self-efficacy.

Despite these methods to engage children in exercise, modern society has evolved from being a physical environment to an interactive environment, also known as the technology era (Robinson, 1999). As such, the sense of competition and social interaction has moved away from physical activity to online communities, such as video games and social networking sites. The lack of physical motivation for physical activity is leading to childhood obesity. However, Nauert (2013) found that with the advancement of technology and the pressure to improve physical activity, manufacturers of video games are producing active games to increase the motivation of exercise. If a child is not motivated to play sport, but enjoys games such as ‘Just Dance’ (Ubisoft, 2009), why not allow them to exercise playing a video game that encourages them to burn calories?

Despite media being partly responsible for the decreased levels of physical activity, it has proved to be useful in motivating children to participate in exercise in their free time. Huhman et al (2005) used a media campaign, ‘VERB’, to increase awareness and motivation in 9-13 year olds, by portraying physical activity as “cool and fun”. One year after the campaign was run, sessions of free time exercise had increased by 34%. However, this method could be used to target a larger age range to increase the awareness and importance of exercise at an early age.

In conclusion, children can be motivated to exercise but the majority need an external source of motivation to re-engage in physical activity. The media plays a big role in decreasing a child motivation, by reducing the priority of exercise in comparison to media sources, such as television and video games. However, recent research has used the media to promote and increase the amount of time a child exercises. This shows that targeted media campaigns are an effective method of motivating children to exercise and therefore helping to reduce the number of cases of childhood obesity.


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall, Inc.

Huhman, M., Potter, L.D., Wong, F.L., Banspach, S.W., Duke, J.C., & Heitzler, C.D. (2005). Effects of a Mass Media Campaign to Increase Physical Activity Among Children: Year-1 Results of the VERB Campaign. Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 116(2), 277-284.

Marlatt, G.A., Baer, J.S., & Quigley, L. A. (1995). Self-efficacy and addictive behavior. In A. Bandura (Ed.). Self-efficacy in changing societies (pp. 289-315). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nauert, R. (2013). Video Games Can Up Kids’ Physical Activity, Reduce Obesity. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2013, from

Robinson, T.N. (1999). Reducing Children’s To Prevent Obesity. Journal of the American Medical Association, 282(16).

Walsh, F. (2013, August 22). Children and exercise – the inactivity time bomb. BBC News Health. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from

What is Change4Life? (n.d.). Change4Life. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from


Posted on October 23, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Physical activity in childhood is an essential predictor for future physical and psychological health (Ortega, 2008). Exercise behaviours learned in childhood have been found to be passed on into adulthood (Cleveland, Dwyer and Venn, 2012). Therefore it is important to find the reasons why so many children do not take part in physical activity in order to implement interventions to promote health-enhancing physical activity later on in life a (Hardy, 2010).

    Although amount of time spent watching TV has been correlated with a decreased level of physical activity in children (Bennett, 2006), Marshall, Biddle, Gorely, Cameron and Murdey (2004) suggest that the relationship is not significant enough to be of clinical relevance. They explain that inactive behaviour cannot be fully explained by TV viewing or computer games and that studies that imply this are far too simplistic. In fact, Finn, Johannsen and Specker (2002) found that low levels of physical activity in children was influenced by a combination of factors such as sex, school and father’s BMI. This suggests that a much larger understanding of the various components that influence childhood inactivity should be considered because it has been seen that low physical activity in children can lead to damaging effects later in life such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc. (World Health Organisation, 2004). Timperio, Salmon and Ball (2004) found that researchers who do not appreciate the various factors contributing to physical inactivity in children create ineffective interventions (Kahn, 2008).

  2. Oman and McCauley (1993) studied intrinsic motivation and exercise in various settings. There results showed that intrinsic motivation relates to having the desire to continue exercising, and that the greater the individual’s own perception of success within a specific sport led to a greater level of effort and enjoyment of exercise. This research is supported by the study conducted by Vallerand, Gauvin and Halliwell (1986). Even though their research looked at intrinsic motivation by focusing on a balancing task, it can be applied to motivation and exercise. The group who were put under pressure to perform, seemed to lose their intrinsic motivation, they didn’t enjoy the task as much as the group who didn’t have any pressure and were less likely to spend time on the activity. This research seems to indicate that intrinsic motivation is vital in motivating those, in this case children, into continuing to take part in exercise.

    However Skinner (1953) argued that all our behaviours are motivated by rewards, such as monetary rewards. This would seem to suggest that in order to get children, who are at risk of becoming obese, a physical reward is needed to motivate them to exercise. This however is not the case; Skinner (1953) would argue that intrinsic motivators do occur and that when they do the reward is in the activity. By understanding this, if you can get children to enjoy a certain exercise they do, the enjoyment can act as a reward and keep them intrinsically motivated to continue exercising, and no extrinsic (for example money) reward is needed.

    Oman, R. F. & McCauley, E. (1993). Intrinsic motivation and exercise behaviour. Journal of Health Education, 24, 232-238.

    Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behaviour. New York: Macmillan.

    Vallerand, R.J., Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1987). Intrinsic motivation in sport. In K.B Pandolf (Ed). Exercise and sport sciences reviews, 15, 389-425.

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