Using psychology research to maximize the benefits of exercise

Zhang et al recently assessed relationships between exercise habits, psychological needs, and psychological outcomes.

It’s widely accepted that exercise has positive psychological health benefits that complement its physiological health benefits. When we train or coach others, we have an opportunity to support and maximize the manifestation of these benefits, even if we aren’t psychologists or mental health professionals. I’m not at all suggesting that trainers or coaches should go outside of their scope of practice to engage in armchair psychology – rather, I’m highlighting the fact that it’s impossible to deliver exercise interventions with ongoing communication in a manner that has no psychological effect on the person receiving those interventions and communications. If you’re more of a client than a coach, this is important to keep in mind. As you interact with your coach, you should be evaluating how the experience makes you feel, and how that coach is meeting (or failing to meet) your psychological needs. Even when we “coach” ourselves, we are unable to avoid the psychological ramifications of engaging in an exercise program – the way we approach our training will inevitably have a psychological impact on us, whether it’s positive, negative, or neutral. This Research Spotlight will address some key factors linking exercise to psychological benefits, and it will be written from a perspective that identifies coaches as the “target audience,” but if you’re self-coached or working with a coach at the moment, the findings will still have a high degree of relevance and applicability.

Before we get into the new study, let’s briefly cover the underlying theoretical framework that was used. Self-determination theory is a broad framework that aims to understand human motivation and personality, with a key focus on specific psychological needs (2). The general idea is that humans have an inherent tendency to seek growth and self-actualization, but they are less able to seek and achieve this growth when key psychological needs supporting intrinsic motivation are not being met. Generally speaking, motivation shifts along a spectrum from amotivation (lack of motivation) to extrinsic motivation (a relatively low-quality form of motivation), and ultimately to intrinsic motivation (the highest-quality form of motivation), as their key psychological needs are increasingly satisfied (3). 

As noted in a previous MASS article, the psychological needs emphasized by self-determination theory are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. An excerpt from that article describes these concepts quite clearly:

Put concisely (4), relatedness refers to “being meaningfully connected with others,” autonomy refers to “feeling a sense of authentic choice in what one does,” and competence refers to “feeling effective in what one does.” Other authors define these terms with slightly different terminology (5), suggesting that relatedness refers to “the need to feel close to and understood by important others,” autonomy refers to “the need to feel choiceful and volitional, as the originator of one’s actions,” and competence refers to “the need to feel capable of achieving desired outcomes.” When these three needs are met, people tend to feel empowered to confidently and enthusiastically pursue growth opportunities, which are perceived as being very rewarding and fulfilling.

Self-determination theory involves six different mini-theories, which are all described here. The presently reviewed study (1) focused on the “basic psychological needs theory,” and more specifically aimed to evaluate relationships between exercise habits (commitment to exercise and exercise adherence), basic psychological needs (specifically competence and relatedness), and psychological outcomes (in this case, a questionnaire-derived metric of “life satisfaction”). The researchers administered an online survey to over 1,000 college students in China; 407 were majoring in physical education, while 605 were pursuing degrees in other fields. The survey included questionnaires to assess exercise commitment and adherence (a 5-point scale called the Physical Exercise Questionnaire for College Students), satisfaction of psychological needs (a 5-point scale called the  Basic Psychological Needs in Exercise Scale), and life satisfaction (a 7-point scale called the Satisfaction with Life Scale). In addition to broadly assessing correlations between variables, the researchers also used structural equation modeling, which involves identifying a hypothesized model with a specified structure that describes the “path” through which key variables are thought to be related to one another, then statistically assessing the relationships between variables in the hypothesized model.

Overall, the researchers found that exercise variables were positively correlated with psychological needs satisfaction variables, and that both groups of variables were positively correlated with life satisfaction. However, the interesting wrinkle in this study’s findings is that the relationships between variables were a bit different when comparing physical education majors to other majors. For physical education majors, commitment to exercise wasn’t significantly related to satisfaction of psychological needs, but adherence to exercise was positively associated with satisfaction of both competence needs and relatedness needs. Competence needs satisfaction was significantly (and positively) associated with life satisfaction, but relatedness needs satisfaction was not. In contrast, things looked a bit different for non-physical-education majors. Adherence to exercise was positively associated with satisfaction of both competence needs and relatedness needs, but exercise commitment was also significantly associated with relatedness needs satisfaction. For these individuals, both relatedness needs satisfaction and competence needs satisfaction were significantly (and positively) associated with life satisfaction. These relationships are outlined in Figure 1. For this type of figure, bold lines represent statistically significant relationships between variables, and the numerical value represents the regression coefficient by which the first variable predicts a change in the second variable. Dashed lines represent non-significant relationships.

Graphic by Kat Whitfield

My personal interpretation is that these data reinforce a point that is simple, intuitive, but extremely important: people generally share a common set of psychological needs, but the relative importance and impact of specific psychological needs will vary from person to person and from context to context. For non-physical-education students in this study, committing to exercise contributed to satisfaction of their relatedness needs, and that relatedness satisfaction contributed to their life satisfaction. This psychological profile is probably reminiscent of many beginners or general population clients; the act of committing to an exercise program generates some positive psychological effects and makes them feel more connected to others who engage in similar exercise activities (or a coach that they recently hired), and this sense of relatedness goes a long way toward life satisfaction. 

In contrast, a physical education student probably views exercise as being part of their personal and professional identity, to an extent. Committing to exercise is probably an assumed expectation rather than an exciting step in the direction of self-improvement, so it didn’t significantly contribute to satisfaction of psychological needs. However, adhering to an exercise program is something that might make a fitness-oriented person feel more engaged with their craft and more connected to their peers, which would explain why exercise adherence was associated with satisfaction of both competence needs and relatedness needs among physical education students. Furthermore, if exercise is (to some extent) baked into their personal and professional identity, it makes sense that reinforcing their exercise-related competence would have a noteworthy impact on their life satisfaction. My expectation is that this psychological profile is more reflective of an intermediate-to-advanced client, an extremely enthusiastic hobbyist or competitor who is fully invested in fitness, or a client who also happens to work in the fitness industry.

As a coach, we shouldn’t view the support of psychological needs as a zero-sum game in which supporting one need will automatically detract from supporting another. As discussed in a previous MASS article, good coaches are able to support the autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs of their athletes (6), which results in positive outcomes and increased enjoyment for everyone involved. However, I believe really good coaches have an ability to identify the general psychological profile of a client and preferentially emphasize the support of certain psychological needs in a prioritized manner. 

For example, imagine that you’re working with an avid fitness enthusiast. This client competes regularly, successfully managed their own programming for years before working with you, and views fitness as a major part of their identity. In the vast majority of cases, this type of client will thrive when there’s a particular emphasis on supporting autonomy and competence. This type of client will want you to provide your expertise and guidance, while also acknowledging their high level of experience and competence. They’ll also tend to thrive when you challenge them with rigorous programs that are appropriate for their skill level and experience level, as this is a subtle acknowledgement of their heightened degree of competence. This type of client is also more likely to desire a more hands-on role when it comes to program-related decision making. In other words, this client might want to be treated more like a peer or apprentice – they’ve got very worthwhile perspectives and experiences to draw on, but they want you to provide an extra pair of experienced eyes and help them refine their understanding of more nuanced aspects of the craft. This type of client will tend to thrive when you ask them for detailed feedback about how things are going, what has worked well for them in the past, and how they feel about some proposed programming ideas. To be clear, you aren’t offering these types of choices and soliciting feedback for the sole purpose of coddling their ego – coaching is an interactive process that involves extensive communication, and your intermediate-to-advanced clients are more likely to succeed and enjoy the process when you take this approach.

Conversely, imagine that you’re working with a total beginner. If you try to shift some decision making onto their plate and overwhelm them with options and choices, this is likely to backfire. You need to meet this type of client where they’re at, which involves acknowledging that their perceived competence level (specifically with regards to exercise) is probably on the lower side – as a coach, one of your jobs is to cultivate this growth and help them progress from the beginner level to intermediate and beyond. For this type of client, you want to support autonomy while helping them build competence, but the largest area of emphasis tends to be relatedness. When someone is just starting to get into exercise, it’s a pretty huge lifestyle change that comes with more than a few hurdles and challenges. They’ll need some encouragement and support, and they’ll want to know that their coach is truly valuing and incorporating their feedback. So, you don’t want to overwhelm this type of client with a ton of choices and advanced training techniques, and you don’t want to discourage them by holding them to inappropriately high expectations and nitpicking their execution. Instead, you’ll want to provide a calming and encouraging source of support, while actively listening to their feedback and adjusting their programming accordingly. Finally, it’s important to remember that you can support a client’s autonomy without overloading them with complicated decisions and choices. As reviewed in a previous MASS article, you can provide autonomy-supporting feedback that considers that individual’s experience level and frame of reference, provides an appropriate amount of options or choice for their skill level, explains corrective feedback in a manner that’s appropriate for the individual’s experience level, and utilizes positive and supportive language (7).

So, if you’re a coach who’s using a relatively one-size-fits-all approach to your coaching and communication strategies, take a moment to rethink that strategy. By leaning on self-determination theory and reflecting on the unique psychological profile of individual clients, you might find that your clients are able to reach higher levels of success and enjoyment while working with you. If you’re currently working with a coach, reflect on this topic from the opposite perspective. Think about whether or not your coach is adequately facilitating your success by coaching in a way that supports your psychological needs. If not, think about how your coach might be able to do that more effectively, and broach the topic in a constructive way. Finally, if you’re currently “coaching” yourself, reflect on the best way to set yourself up for success. Think through your key psychological needs (autonomy, competence, and relatedness), and take stock of which ones are being met, and which ones are not. If you’re falling short on one or more of your psychological needs, it’s probably time to get back to the drawing board and figure out how you can modify your approach or seek out some experiences or resources to reinforce the satisfaction of these critically important needs.

Note: This article was published in partnership with MASS Research Review. Full versions of Research Spotlight breakdowns are originally published in MASS Research Review. Subscribe to MASS to get a monthly publication with breakdowns of recent exercise and nutrition studies.


  1.   Zhang Y, Ren M, Zou S. Effect Of Physical Exercise On College Students’ Life Satisfaction: Mediating Role Of Competence And Relatedness Needs. Front Psychol. 2022 May 31; ePub ahead of print.
  2.   Ryan RM, Deci EL. Self-Determination Theory And The Facilitation Of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, And Well-Being. Am Psychol. 2000 Jan;55(1):68–78.
  3.   Ryan RM, Deci EL, Vansteenkiste M, Soenens B. Building A Science Of Motivated Persons: Self-Determination Theory’s Empirical Approach To Human Experience And The Regulation Of Behavior. Motiv Sci. 2021;7(2):97–110.
  4.   Greenberg J, Schmader T, Arndt J, Landau M. Social Psychology: The Science of Everyday Life (1st ed). Macmillan Higher Education; 2015:221-223.
  5.   Patrick H, Williams GC. Self-Determination Theory: Its Application To Health Behavior And Complementarity With Motivational Interviewing. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2012;9:18.
  6.   Mossman LH, Slemp GR, Lewis KJ, Colla RH, O’Halloran P. Autonomy Support In Sport And Exercise Settings: A Systematic Review And Meta-Analysis. Int Rev Sport Exerc Psychol. 2022 Feb 2; ePub ahead of print.
  7.   Mouratidis A, Lens W, Vansteenkiste M. How You Provide Corrective Feedback Makes A Difference: The Motivating Role Of Communicating In An Autonomy-Supporting Way. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2010 Oct;32(5):619–37.
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