Advances in Physical Education
2013. Vol.3, No.1, 20-27
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes ( DOI:10.4236/ape.2013.31004
Basic Psychological Needs in Predicting Exercise Participation
Jennifer V. Martinez1, Crystal D. Oberle1*, Alexander J. Nagurney2
1Department of Psychology, Texas State University, San Marcos, USA
2Department of Psychology, University of Hawaii, Hilo, USA
Email: *
Received October 24th, 2012; revised November 28th, 2012; accepted December 8th, 2012
This study examined propositions stemming from self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985), which
contends that motivational consequences and positive outcomes are predicted by the needs for compe-
tence, relatedness, and autonomy. Participants completed the Psychological Need Satisfaction in Exercise
(Wilson, Rogers, Rodgers, & Wild, 2006) scale and had their gym access activity monitored for six weeks.
Regression analyses revealed that only competence emerged as a statistically significant predictor of ex-
ercise participation, and that this prediction was true for women only (p = .04). These findings suggest
that exercise and health professionals must take care to ensure that this need is met, particularly in their
female clients who may be impacted by traditional gender roles in sport contexts.
Keywords: Self-Determination Theory; Psychological Need Satisfaction; Exercise Participation; Gender
The association between exercise and improved physical and
mental health has been well documented (Biddle & Mutrie,
2001). Exercise is important in preventing many diseases and
medical conditions such as coronary heart disease, certain can-
cers, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and osteoporosis (US
Department of Health and Human Services, 2002). Despite the
positive health benefits of exercise, physical inactivity is a
common occurrence in industrialized countries. In 2009, the
National Center for Health Statistics found that when consider-
ing all leisure-time physical activity, 33% of adults were con-
sidered inactive and only 35% engaged in such activity on a
regular basis. Regarding vigorous leisure-time physical activity,
55% of adults never engaged in any periods of vigorous leisure-
time physical activity lasting 10 minutes or more per week, and
only 28% engaged in such activity three or more times per
week. Furthermore, research has shown that whereas most in-
dividuals find it easy to begin an exercise program, about 50%
tend to drop out within the first six months (Sallis & Hovell,
This decline in exercise and decreased health corresponds to
an epidemic rise in obesity rates (Guh et al., 2009). For exam-
ple, based on their body mass index, 35% of adults are consid-
ered obese (National Center for Health Statistics, 2009). If the
current trends in obesity continue, by 2015, 2 in every 5 adults
will be obese (Kumanyika et al., 2008). Thus, the prominent
rise in obesity and its related risk factors lead health and well-
ness professionals to investigate the factors that promote long-
term engagement in exercise.
Lack of adherence to an exercise program may arise from a
variety of biological, social, and psychological factors, as indi-
cated in the literature review that is presented below. Central to
behavioral choice and decision making in this context is moti-
vation. While the complex and dynamic nature of influences on
exercise participation make it difficult to single out a particular
theory, perspective, or approach to understanding exercise be-
havior, most theories on exercise behavior factor in motivation
as an important contributing factor in determining exercise be-
havior (Biddle & Mutrie, 2001).
Self-Determination Theory
Of the different motivation theories, self-determination theory
(SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985) holds particular promise in predict-
ing motivational factors, as well as psychological and emotional
benefits in the exercise domain. SDT is a meta-theory comprised
of many sub-theories that explain human motivation and devel-
opment. One of the most important sub-theories is the basic
psychological needs theory, which proposes that people have
innate psychological needs that, when fulfilled, have positive
influences on personal growth, psychosocial adjustment, and eu-
daimonic well-being. SDT assumes that a strong sense of com-
petence, relatedness, and autonomy make up the basic needs and
constitute the essential input that nurtures motivation and well-
being across a variety of situations and cultures. The need for
autonomy reflects the desire to organize experiences and behav-
ior that is congruent with the integrated self. The need for com-
petence reflects the desire to have an effect on the environment
and attain valued outcomes. Last, the need for relatedness re-
flects the desire to feel connected and understood by others.
Furthermore, SDT assumes that we are more motivated by situa-
tions where there is some choice, control, and self-determination.
Conversely, we prefer not to be controlled by any external force.
Thus, these constructs are what provide the foundation and are
central to intrinsic motivation (Biddle & Mutrie, 2001).
If the needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence are
satisfied, autonomous internal forms of motivation will encou-
rage behavior. However, if the needs are thwarted, then this
will lead to more controlling external forms of motivational
regulation or motivation. Furthermore, Deci and Ryan (1985)
state that it is within the social context that needs can be pro-
moted or thwarted. According to SDT, the satisfaction of the
basic psychological needs is fundamental to incorporating cul-
tural norms and values into a coherent self-structure. The needs
*Corresponding author.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
are considered to be innate and universal in their positive in-
fluence on well-being, while need-thwarting events can dimin-
ish energy.
SDT is among many other psychological theories which
center importance on feelings of competence or efficacy for
motivated behavior. It is believed that in order for individuals
to carry out a behavior, they must first experience some level of
effectiveness. According to Ryan, Williams, Patrick, and Deci
(2009), this sense of competence is not only related to the indi-
vidual’s history and beliefs in capabilities, but also aspects of
the social environment. However, unlike other theories, SDT is
unique in emphasizing the importance of autonomy. Again, the
capacity to act autonomously is strongly influenced by the so-
cial environment, which can vary from controlling to suppor-
tive. The concept of relatedness according to SDT applies more
generally to contexts where individuals are surrounded by
warmth, care, and involvement.
Self-Determination Theory in Exercise
Because exercise often requires attributions related to motiva-
tion such as persistence, time management, and self-regulatory
skills, SDT is a relevant theory to study in the exercise context.
In the view of SDT, exercise can be an inherently rewarding
activity that contributes to positive outcomes such as happiness,
subjective vitality, and persistence (Ryan, Fredrick, Lepes, Ru-
bio, & Sheldon, 1997). Areas of research on the tenets of SDT in
the exercise domain have generally drawn the same conclusions.
With children, autonomous self-regulation is positively related
to both amount of physical activity (Vierling, Standage, & Trea-
sure, 2007) and intention to exercise (Biddle, Soos, & Chatzis-
arantis, 1999). With regular recreational exercisers, higher levels
of autonomous self-regulation lead to fewer exercise relapses
and greater intentions to exercise (Thogersen-Ntoumani & Ntou-
manis, 2006), as well as greater exercise intensity (Standage,
Sebire, & Loney, 2008). With athletes, autonomy-supportive
coaching produces more autonomous forms of motivation,
which are predictive of persistence with the sport over time
(Pelletier, Fortier Vallerand, & Briere, 2001). Finally, in a meta-
analysis of the self- determination continuum, researchers found
moderately strong correlations between more self-determined
forms of motivation and measures of intention and competence
(Chatzisarantis, Hagger, Biddle, Smith, & Wang, 2003).
Although there is support for SDT as a whole, support for the
basic psychological needs theory within SDT research in the
exercise domain is just beginning to emerge (Hagger & Chat-
zisarantis, 2007). Nevertheless, a wide variety of literature im-
plicates the needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness as
being essential to facilitating and sustaining motivation and
well-being. For example, Gagne, Ryan, and Bargmann (2003)
studied gymnasts’ experiences of motivation and well-being at
each practice over a four-week period. Results from the study
indicated that athletes with more autonomous forms of motiva-
tion had more positive experiences in the sport and were higher
in well-being. Furthermore, the changes from pre to post prac-
tice well-being were related to basic need satisfaction. That is,
gymnasts who had perceptions of support for relatedness, au-
tonomy, and competence displayed more positive affect, more
vitality, higher state self-esteem, and less negative affect. In a
similar study with over 500 adult sport participants, Adie, Duda,
and Ntoumanis (2008) found that coach autonomy support pre-
dicted satisfaction of all three basic needs. Also, basic need
satisfaction predicted greater subjective vitality when engaged
in sports. Those with low levels of autonomy were more likely
to feel emotionally and physically drained by engagement in
sport. Moreover, Kowal and Fortier (2000) found that athletes
who were high in relatedness, autonomy, and competence
showed more positive affect, more vitality, higher state self-
esteem, and less negative affect. Again, in another group of
young athletes, satisfaction of each of the three needs was cor-
related negatively to athlete burnout (Perreault, Gaudreau, La-
pointe, & LaCroix, 2009). The needs of competence, related-
ness, and autonomy have also been shown to contribute to en-
hanced feelings of positive well-being and positive affect, as
well as reduced experiences of psychological distress and nega-
tive affect during exercise participation (Wilson, Mack, Blan-
chard, & Gray, 2009) and enhanced subjective vitality among
exercisers (Wilson & Rogers, 2008).
Because both positive affect and confidence in one’s ability to
be physically active are related to greater participation in exer-
cise (Frederick & Ryan, 1993; Sallis et al., 1989), it is expected
that the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs would re-
late to exercise participation. Indeed, Ryan et al. (1997) found
that enjoyment and competence motives were associated with
greater participation in exercise programs; however, the basic
psychological needs were not assessed. Nevertheless, research
suggests that need support and satisfaction could contribute to
exercise persistence over time. For example, Wilson, Rodgers,
and Fraser (2002) surveyed a sample of 500 university students
and staff enrolled in an exercise class and found that psycho-
logical need satisfaction was positively correlated with intrinsic
motivation and autonomous regulations. In turn, these forms of
motivation were positively associated with self-reported exercise
behavior. Likewise, Edmunds, Ntoumanis, and Duda (2006)
found in a large sample of regular exercisers aged 16 to 64 that
competence needs satisfaction and autonomous regulation posi-
tively predicted degree of strenuous exercise.
The impact of the basic psychological needs on exercise be-
havior has also been demonstrated through experimental ma-
nipulation. For example, Vansteenkiste, Simon, Lens, Sheldon,
and Deci (2004) examined the impact of need satisfaction on
high school students’ exercise engagement in physical educa-
tion. In the study, exercises were presented in a need supportive
or controlling way. This was accomplished by giving students
the option to participate in exercises or forcing them to engage
in the activity. Results indicated that, compared to the control-
ling context, participants in the need supportive condition dis-
played greater effort and were more likely to persist and receive
higher performance scores from teachers. Likewise, Edmunds,
Ntoumanis, and Duda (2008) examined the impact of need
supportive teaching styles on psychological need satisfaction
and exercise behavior. Female group fitness class participants
in a 10-week exercise class were assigned to an SDT-based or
typical teaching style. In the SDT-based class, the instructor
provided need support by taking the perspective of the exercis-
ers into account, acknowledging their feelings, and providing
rationale for exercise. Compared to the control group, partici-
pants in the SDT condition displayed a significantly greater
linear increase in relatedness and competence need satisfaction.
Participants in the SDT condition also attended class signifi-
cantly more often.
Despite the importance of psychological needs to SDT’s
framework, a majority of the research utilizing the theory in the
exercise domain has focused on the relationship between be-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 21
havioral regulations with behavior. Although there is a good
amount of evidence linking enhanced feelings of competence
with more self-determined forms of regulation, there is less data
on the theory’s claims regarding autonomy and relatedness
(Wilson & Rogers, 2008). In fact, many findings on the rela-
tionship between satisfying basic psychological needs within
the exercise contexts have produced mixed findings.
For example, cross-sectional studies of exercisers indicate
that perceived competence more than autonomy or relatedness
displays the strongest associations for more self-determined
motivations which, in turn, should predict vitality, well-being,
and persistence. Yet, longitudinal studies indicate that psycho-
logical need fulfillment varies across time where autonomy and
competence both play a role in developing self-determined
regulation. Furthermore, among the three needs, the role of per-
ceived relatedness is less understood. For example, Wilson and
Rodgers (2003) reported no statistically significant correlation
between perceived relatedness and behavioral regulation, and
Edmunds et al. (2006) also showed that perceived relatedness
did not predict intrinsic motivation. While Wilson and Rogers
(2008) showed a relationship between need satisfaction and
self-determination motivations, their research did not explore
the behavioral outcomes of such findings. Vlachopoulous and
Michailidou (2006) did investigate satisfaction of needs with
exercise frequency and found that competence appeared a
stronger indicator of exercise frequency than autonomy and re-
latedness. However, the sample of the study was Greek-speak-
ing exercisers, limiting the generalizability of the study to other
cultures and contexts.
Purpose of the Study
The current study tests the tenets of psychological needs sat-
isfaction, as a component of SDT, in the exercise domain. Al-
though there is increased attention in the role of basic psycho-
logical needs in determining exercise behavior, much of the
research has focused on instrument development issues or has
focused on the relationship between fulfillment of the basic
psychological needs and self regulations. Furthermore, although
past research has examined the model of the basic psychologi-
cal needs within the exercise setting, activity levels were as-
sessed by self-report measures that may be subject to participa-
tion biases (Wilson, Mack, Gunnell, Oster, & Gregson, 2008).
In addition, many of the past studies were conducted in coun-
tries outside of the United States, calling into question the gen-
eralizability of SDT in predicting exercise behaviors (Vlacho-
poulos & Michailidou, 2006). More research is needed on SDT
in a variety of populations with different measures of exercise
The current study attempts to fill in the gaps within the lit-
erature and investigate the three constructs of basic needs under
SDT (i.e., competence, relatedness, and autonomy) and their
ability to predict participation in exercise. Additionally, the
study is one of the first to explore whether gender moderates
these predictive relationships.
The sample was comprised of students at Texas State Uni-
versity with access to the campus recreation center. Participa-
tion was voluntary and open to all students who reported using
the campus recreation facilities. Data were gathered from 101
students for the study. Of these students, 65 men and 36 women
comprised the sample, ranging in age from 18 to 33 years (M =
21.90, SD = 3.11). Within the sample, 65.3% were Caucasian,
21.8% were Hispanic, 5.9% were bi- or multi-racial, 4.0% were
Asian or Pacific Islander, 2.0% were African American, and
1.0% were Native American or Alaskan Native.
Materials and Procedure
Data for the study were collected at the Texas State Univer-
sity recreation center. Participants were randomly approached
as they entered the recreation center, or they were invited to
participate at the end of group exercise classes in cycle, cardio,
and strength formats. Upon consent, participants completed the
Psychological Need Satisfaction in Exercise (PNSE; Wilson et
al., 2006), an 18-item self-report measure of psychological need
satisfaction experience in exercise contexts. The PNSE contains
three subscales, each comprising items designed to reflect re-
spondents’ perceptions of competence, autonomy, and related-
ness felt during a typical exercise session. Participants re-
sponded to each item on a 7-point Likert scale (1 = not at all
true… 7 = very true) in terms of how they feel while exercising.
Note that this scale differs from the original 6-point scale (1 =
false, 6 = true). This change was made to include a standard
middle-point option and to provide labels that correspond to
each number. Wilson et al. (2006) provided initial evidence that
supported the structural and convergent validity of PNSE scores
in physically active young adult exercisers and reported that the
internal consistency for the PNSE subscales of competence,
autonomy, and relatedness were .90, .90, and .91, respectively.
Exercise behavior was recorded via the recreation center’s
electronic entry. Turnstiles located at the front of the recreation
center allow admission via the student’s unique student ID
number, handprint, or ID card. For each student, an electronic
log records the number of entries and location of entry into the
recreation center. Thus, participants’ number of entries into the
recreation center was uploaded from the main database for a
total count of exercise participation over a six-week period fol-
lowing their survey completion.
The first inferential analysis was a multiple regression to
provide an answer to the first set of research questions regard-
ing whether autonomy, competence, and relatedness predict
exercise participation. This analysis had entries for autonomy,
competence, and relatedness scores as independent variables in
order to predict total number of times the participant accessed
the recreation center over 6 weeks. Only competence signifi-
cantly contributed to the prediction of student recreation center
access (see Table 1).
Table 1.
Regression analysis for needs predicting exercise participation.
Variable B β t p
Competence .630 .228 1.991 .049*
Autonomy .339 .116 1.045 .299
Relatedness .018 .210 .009 .932
Note: *p < .05.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
The next three inferential analyses were stepwise regression
analyses to provide answers to the second set of research ques-
tions regarding whether gender moderates the relationships
between the psychological needs and exercise participation. For
each of these three analyses (one for each of the psychological
needs), sex and the centered needs variable were entered in the
first step, and the interaction between these two variables was
entered in the second step. As with the first regression analysis,
the criterion variable was the total number of times the partici-
pant accessed the recreation center over 6 weeks. The analyses
revealed no significant interaction between autonomy and gen-
der, or between relatedness and gender, in the prediction of
exercise participation (see Table 2). Using a standard alpha
level of .05, the interaction between competence and gender
would also be considered statistically non-significant. However,
given that gender differences have never previously been stud-
ied in this domain, a more liberal criterion of .10 was used to
determine whether post-hoc tests should be performed. Thus,
two linear regression analyses were conducted: one for males
and one for females. Results indicated that for men, compe-
tence was not a significant predictor of exercise participation (β
= .111, p = .379). Yet, for women, competence was a signifi-
cant predictor of exercise (β = .342, p = .041).
The present study was guided by two research questions. The
first question focused on whether competence, autonomy, and
relatedness predicted exercise participation as defined by the
number of times that participants scanned their student ID’s to
gain access into the student recreation center. Analyses related
to the first question revealed that of the three basic psychologi-
cal needs, only competence was a significant predictor of exer-
cise participation. The second question examined whether gen-
der moderated the relationship between competence, autonomy,
and relatedness and exercise participation. For this second
Table 2.
Regression analyses for interaction between needs and gender.
Variable B β t p
Step 1
Autonomy (centered) .471 .161 1.570 .120
Gender 6.257 .198 1.934 .056
Step 2
Autonomy × Gender .945 .167 1.367 .932
Step 1
Relatedness (centered) .471 .084 .865 .389
Gender 7.963 .252 2.588 .011*
Step 2
Relatedness × Gender .188 .068 .457 .649
Step 1
Competence (centered) .643 .233 2.339 .021*
Gender 5.794 .183 1.843 .068
Step 2
Competence × Gender 1.027 .238 1.860 .066
Note: *p < .05.
question, gender did moderate the relationship between compe-
tence and exercise participation. Results revealed that compe-
tence predicted exercise participation in women, but not in men.
However, gender did not moderate the relationship between
relatedness or autonomy and exercise participation.
According to the results of this study, only competence
emerged as a significant predictor of exercise participation. This
finding is not surprising, considering that in past research, com-
petence accounted for the greatest portion of exercise behavior
variance among the three needs (Wilson, Mack, Gunnell, Oster,
& Gregson, 2008). Furthermore, in support of SDT, Edmunds,
Ntoumanis, and Duda (2007) found that competence need satis-
faction partially mediated the relationship between perceived
autonomy support from exercise instructors and intrinsic moti-
vation. In addition, the same researchers tested SDT using a
hierarchical regression to examine the importance of motiva-
tion-related variables in self-reported exercise behavior and
found that competence need satisfaction and autonomous forms
of regulation (i.e., identified and introjected regulations) posi-
tively predicted strenuous exercise behavior. According to re-
searchers, competence need satisfaction had a direct and indirect
(i.e., identified regulation) effect on behavioral investment.
Thus, it is suggested that feelings of competence result in in-
creased exercise behavior by reinforcing the personal impor-
tance of exercise. Given that exercise uses the physical systems
of the body, it is not surprising that competence emerges as a
predictor of exercise participation, compared to autonomy and
relatedness which are not as physical in concept. Perceptions of
competence and ability are often found to influence physical
activity. Research often shows that physically active people
report higher levels of perceived competence, suggesting that
individuals seek domains where ability can be demonstrated
and incompetence can be avoided (Biddle & Mutrie, 2001).
Furthermore, research using other constructs related to compe-
tence, such as self-efficacy, support a strong relationship be-
tween elevated levels of perceived competence and physical
activity in people of all ages (Crocker, Eklund, & Kowalski,
2000; Hayes, Crocker, & Kowalski, 1999).
What is interesting is the finding that competence predicted
exercise participation in women, but not in men. According to
SDT, the innate needs are universal to all cultures, across gen-
der and the lifespan. Indeed, Standage, Duda, and Pensgaard
(2005) tested the invariance of the SDT framework across gen-
der and found the tenets of SDT to be invariant across men and
women. Similarly, Vlachopoulos and Karavani (2009) found
equivalence of the effects of the psychological needs for
autonomy, competence, and relatedness on subjective vitality
across gender. However, neither study investigated exercise
participation as the outcome. Rather, both studies focused on
the SDT tenet that the basic psychological needs promote well-
No studies to date have explored the moderating role of gen-
der on exercise participation in conjunction with basic psycho-
logical needs. In the current study, the fact that competence
predicted exercise participation in women but not in men could
be due to gender roles. It is possible that in the exercise domain,
physical activities and the physical self are inherently “male”
(Hagger, Biddle, & Wang, 2005). Thus, women may feel in-
timidated when in the exercise context and therefore a degree of
competence would be needed. Examples of the gender differ-
ences in regards to exercise participation have indeed been
noted and regarded as one of the most consistent findings in the
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 23
literature (Biddle & Mutrie, 2001). In a population study of
motives for participation in exercise, women were more likely
to report emotional barriers to exercise. Specifically, personal
beliefs that they are not “sporty” were considered strong barri-
ers to physical activity (Allied Dunbar National Fitness Survey,
1992). However, it has also been shown that when the expen-
diture of exercise is seen as a barrier to participation, partici-
pants were more likely to take on leisurely activities such as
walking (Salmon et al., 2003). Thus, participation in activity
may be influenced by the type of activity, whereby exercise that
does not clearly display “sport” competence may be more eas-
ily taken by women (i.e. group exercise, yoga, etc.). Yet, the
converse may be true for men whereby competence is needed
for participation in predominately female activities.
In a study that tested the assumption of universality of the
psychological needs across gender in secondary school students,
boys tended to score higher in perceived positive feedback,
perceived competence, perceived interest, and perceived effort
in physical education (Koka & Hein, 2005). These findings
suggest that boys were able to demonstrate more competence in
the physical context and that they were more likely to receive
positive feedback than girls. Thus, such perceptions are likely
to lead to girls perceiving physical settings as more controlling
because it is not an area where they feel capable of demonstrat-
ing competence (Koka & Hein, 2005). Since these studies were
conducted on young children, it is possible that in young adults
competence must be perceived in women in order for them to
continue in physical activity, whereas men do not require this
Other research supports the role of competence in women.
For example, in Estonian youth, it was found that body-related
perception of competence was the dominant predictor of activ-
ity in young women (Raudsepp, Viira, & Liblik, 2004). How-
ever, Kowalski, Crocker, and Kowalski (2001) found that the
role of competence in predicting exercise behavior is not af-
fected by self-presentational concerns or physique in women.
Nevertheless, this finding contradicts the universality proposi-
tion set forth by SDT. Few researchers have explored the basic
psychological needs and exercise participation across gender.
Although competence clearly has a significant role in predicting
exercise behavior, possible reasons for the gender differences
will need further investigation.
Implications for Further Research
Given the study’s findings, there are discrepancies in SDT
concerning the universal nature of the basic psychological needs.
SDT in the physical activity and exercise context is still flour-
ishing. Little research has been done exploring the relationship
between the basic psychological needs and objective forms of
exercise behavior, especially across genders. Because compe-
tence is an important factor in exercise participation in women,
researchers should examine the influence of gender roles or
body-related motives. In addition, future work would benefit by
examining the specific type of exercise mode and intensity. It
may be that different types of exercise (e.g., weight training,
cardiovascular activities, and sports) may require different need
satisfaction. For example, those engaging in exercise for sport
may require more competence than those engaging in cardio-
vascular activities which require less skill. Given that this study
was cross-sectional, future research should conduct field ex-
periments manipulating competence to determine if similar re-
sults are obtained. That is, experimental designs should be util-
ized to determine the casual attributions implied in SDT be-
tween the basic psychological needs and positive outcomes.
Vallerand (2001) noted that research typically considers the
effects of satisfying competence, but has been slow to consider
autonomy and relatedness. Thus, although the current study
adds to the current literature, future work is needed to examine
the constructs of relatedness and autonomy. In addition, there
may be measurement issues that need to be addressed in the
research on SDT and the individual in the exercise context.
While the evidence is favorable to the construct validity of
scores from the PNSE, it has been argued that future research
should focus on construct validation of the basic psychological
needs. Further, it has been reported that criterion validity coef-
ficients from structural equation modeling analyses with per-
ceived relatedness are incongruent with SDT. That is, there
poses no evidence for changes in perceived relatedness in affect
or well-being which are two of the central outcomes dictated by
SDT (Wilson et al., 2008).
Also, it should be noted that the sample used in this study
was university students with access to a recreation center. Uni-
versity students have additional burdens that are not typical in
the population such as exams and extra-curricular activities.
Thus, this may have influenced participation in exercise. Other
issues stem from the fact that this population is generally young
and healthy; future research would benefit from examining the
basic psychological needs in the exercise context among older
adults. Finally, participants in the study were followed prospec-
tively for six weeks; future research should take a longitudinal
assessment of exercise participation as participants may drop-
out of their exercise routine over time.
Implications for Practice
Based on the positive physical and psychological health
benefits from regular exercise, and the small number actively
engaged in exercise, research is needed to investigate factors
associated with exercise persistence. Although SDT does not
take into account the wide variety of factors that relate to exer-
cise participation, the theory is attractive to health professionals
because it offers a parsimonious account for behavior. Past re-
search and the current study suggest that competence is a par-
ticularly relevant need in the exercise domain, and that exercise
instructors and professionals in the health field should take
special care that this need is met. For example, Edmund,
Ntoumanis, and Duda (2005) manipulated an exercise instruc-
tor’s teaching style to be controlling or autonomy-supportive
for a group of exercisers and found that exercisers with the
supportive instructor had an increase in competence, class en-
joyment, and positive affect over time. Thus, by following the
tenets outlined in SDT, exercise and health professionals can
develop interventions that can increase competence and other
positive outcomes.
Overall, research findings suggest that, in terms of exercise
participation, health and exercise professionals should make
sure that the basic psychological needs of individuals engaging
in an exercise regimen are met. Of these needs, studies have
indicated that competence need satisfaction is particularly im-
portant in predicting exercise behavior. This can be achieved by
designing structured programs that allow for gradual and ob-
servable improvement, setting up achievable goals, and provid-
ing positive feedback.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
On the basis of this and past research on SDT in the exercise
setting, it seems that exercise professionals should provide a
structure that sets realistic goals that are made clear to the indi-
vidual, and that praise is given for effort made to achieve that
goal (Edmund et al., 2009). In particular, the need for compe-
tence may be especially important to recognize in women. Thus,
women who may feel intimated by exercise programs because
of gender roles will need additional support and guidance in an
exercise program.
Implications for Theory
According to the theory, fulfillment of these basic psycho-
logical needs represents innate requirements of the self that aid
in the internalization of ambient values and help to integrate the
self within and with the social environment. Thus, fulfillment
of these needs promotes well-being and positive forms of mo-
tivation for health behaviors such as exercise (Wilson et al.,
2008). Social environments that fail to satisfy the innate psy-
chological needs lead to alienation and impede human devel-
opment (Deci & Ryan, 2002). In the current study, competence,
relatedness, and autonomy were examined individually for their
predictive utility in exercise behavior. However, in SDT, the
basic psychological needs must be complementary. That is, all
three needs must be met so as to allow for growth and integrity
(Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Yet, SDT has received criticism regarding the compatibility
of autonomy and relatedness. It has been stated that the manner
in which needs satisfaction unfolds in not exclusionary. Rather,
SDT proposes the idea of complementarity in satisfaction of the
psychological needs such that the satisfaction of autonomous
needs can occur only in light of satisfaction for competence and
relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2002). Support for this comes from
Hagger, Chatizisarantis, and Harris (2006), who found that la-
tent variables for the basic psychological needs could be ex-
plained by a single global factor.
Other research has shown that the needs for competence and
autonomy are positively related while less strong relationships
exist between these constructs and relatedness. For example,
Wilson et al. (2002) showed in a sample of exercise class at-
tendees that there was a moderate relationship between compe-
tence and autonomy and a weaker relationship between these
needs and relatedness. In a similar study of fitness class atten-
dees, there was a greater satisfaction of competence and auto-
nomy than relatedness needs (Wilson & Rodgers, 2003). Again,
in the current study, competence was found to be main predic-
tor of exercise participation while the other constructs did not,
further testing the notion of complementarity.
There have also been mixed findings regarding the basic
psychological needs in the exercise setting. In five studies that
looked at exercise-specific feelings of competence, autonomy,
and relatedness over one and six months, results suggested that
there were fluctuations in psychological need fulfillment over
time with a trend towards increased perceptions of each need
from baseline as a result of an exercise program (Wilson et al.,
2008). Yet, in two of the studies, there were the greatest in-
creases in perceived relatedness over the course of 12-week
exercise programs.
Finally, as mentioned previously, the results from this study
contradict the theory’s tenet that the basic psychological needs
are universal across gender. Although past research has demon-
strated universality, the fact that the current study did not could
be due to the outcome variables used. Many studies examined
well-being, but did not examine exercise participation (Stan-
dage et al., 2005; Vlachopoulos & Karavani, 2009). Also, it is
important to note that this study did not examine the full
framework proposed by Deci and Ryan (1985), in which the
basic psychological needs moderate autonomous forms of re-
gulations which predict behavior. Thus, before interpretations
with theory are made, more research will be needed.
While the findings discussed thus far add to the sparse re-
search on the basic psychological needs in exercise, several li-
mitations should be acknowledged. First, the current study was
non-experimental in design. Furthermore, this study used a con-
venience sample of university students who have access to a
recreation center as part of their university fees and therefore
may not accurately represent the average population. Thus, the
findings must be interpreted with caution when making casual
references. Second, the criterion in this study was restricted to
exercise participation at a recreation center at the expense of
other physical activity settings. Although this study was one of
the few studies to use objective measures of exercise participa-
tion, exercise participation was measured using number of
times the participant accessed the recreation center using their
ID, which may be misleading because there was no recording
of the types of activities individuals were engaging in, some of
which may have been non-physical in nature (e.g., studying).
One major advantage of using the recreation center’s access
database for measuring exercise behavior is that it is observable,
whereas much of the past research on self-determination in the
exercise domain has used self-report as a means to measure
activity. Yet, a disadvantage to the approach used in this study
is that although exercise activity is recorded in an observable
manner, the duration and types of activities the individual
chooses to engage in remain unknown. In addition, outside gym
memberships and other leisure time physical activity were not
Summary and Conclusion
In summary, the purpose of this study was to examine the
basic psychological needs sub-theory of SDT in the exercise
setting. The observations from this study suggest that compe-
tence is particularly important in predicting exercise behavior.
While the evidence of the basic psychological needs is scarce
compared to research on the behavioral regulations, the avail-
able research suggests that perceptions of competence, auton-
omy, and relatedness form inputs into well-being and behavior.
Nevertheless, findings from this study and the theoretical pro-
positions set forth by Deci and Ryan (2002) suggest that the
basic psychological needs may be a promising avenue for re-
searchers and exercise professionals. The present research shows
that competence is an important factor in exercise participation.
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that this relationship is
more salient among women. Gender roles may likely be at play,
but future research will be needed to elucidate this study’s find-
ings in regards to SDT and applications.
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Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 25
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