Examining Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic
Exercise Goals: Cognitive, Affective,
and Behavioral Outcomes
Simon J. Sebire,1 Martyn Standage,1
and Maarten Vansteenkiste2
1University of Bath and 2University of Gent
Grounded in self-determination theory (SDT), this study had two purposes: (a) exam-
ine the associations between intrinsic (relative to extrinsic) exercise goal content and
cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes; and (b) test the mediating role of psy-
chological need satisfaction in the Exercise Goal Content ➞ Outcomes relationship.
Using a sample of 410 adults, hierarchical regression analysis showed relative intrinsic
goal content to positively predict physical self-worth, self-reported exercise behavior,
psychological well-being, and psychological need satisfaction and negatively
exercise anxiety. Except for exercise behavior, the predictive utility of relative intrin-
sic goal content on the dependent variables of interest remained signicant after con-
trolling for participants’ relative self-determined exercise motivation. Structural
equation modeling analyses showed psychological need satisfaction to partially medi-
ate the effect of relative intrinsic goal content on the outcome variables. Our ndings
support further investigation of exercise goals commensurate with the goal content
perspective advanced in SDT.
Keywords: exercise goals, psychological need satisfaction, self-determination theory
The goals on which individuals focus their exercise efforts (e.g., to improve
their health or to enhance their appearance) are a common foundation from which
to explore the motivation for, and the experiences of, exercise engagement. It is
postulated within self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2000) that “all
goals are not created equal” (Ryan, Sheldon, Kasser, & Deci, 1996, p. 7) and that
valuing goals with different foci will be differentially associated with well-being
and adjustment outcomes (Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006).
Specically within SDT, goals with intrinsic and extrinsic content are distin-
guished. Intrinsic goals are those focused toward developing one’s personal interests,
values, and potentials and are inherently satisfying to pursue. These characteristics
Sebire and Standage are with Motivation for Sport, Exercise, and Health (MESH), the School for
Health, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom, and Vansteenkiste is with the Department of
Psychology, University of Gent, Gent, Belgium.
Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 2009, 31, 189-210
© 2009 Human Kinetics, Inc.
190 Sebire, Standage, and Vansteenkiste
align with the organismic foundations of the self within SDT, as humans are consid-
ered to be active and have an innate tendency to develop and rene their sense of self
(Deci & Ryan, 2000). Extrinsic goals are primarily characterized by having an “out-
ward” orientation, with one’s pursuits being directed toward external indicators of
worth such as wealth, fame, and appealing image (Kasser & Ryan, 1993, 1996; Van-
steenkiste et al., 2006). Unlike intrinsic goal pursuit, Deci and Ryan (2000) contend
that extrinsic goal pursuit neither stems from nor contributes to the development of
oneself and may be antithetical to it. Past work focused on people’s life aspirations
has considered goals such as community contribution, social afliation, health and
tness, and self-acceptance to reect intrinsic goals, whereas nancial success,
appearance, popularity, power, and conformity have been categorized as extrinsic
goals (Grouzet et al., 2005; Kasser & Ryan, 1996; Vansteenkiste, Neyrinck, et al.,
2007). The pursuit of intrinsic versus extrinsic life goals has been positively associ-
ated with well-being (e.g., self-actualization and vitality) and negatively associated
with indices of ill-being (e.g., depression and anxiety (see Kasser, 2002; Vansteenkiste,
Soenens, & Duriez, 2008 for an overview). Moreover, recent research has found that
intrinsic versus extrinsic goals within specic life domains are associated with adap-
tive outcomes such as greater job-based satisfaction, vitality, and less emotional
exhaustion (Vansteenkiste, Neyrinck, et al., 2007). The purpose of the current study
was to extend this line of inquiry to the exercise domain. Specically, we sought to
(a) investigate the associations between relative intrinsic exercise goals and a number
of exercise-based outcomes (i.e., self-reported leisure time exercise engagement,
exercise-based anxiety, physical self-worth, psychological well-being, and psycho-
logical need satisfaction) and (b) test whether any associations identied between
exercise goals and outcomes were mediated by exercise-based psychological need
satisfaction as forwarded within SDT.
Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Exercise Goal Content
The effects of what in SDT is termed goal content has received some prior
research attention in the exercise domain, in which case the term exercise
motives, or reasons, was used (Ingledew & Markland, 2008; Maltby & Day,
2001; Markland & Ingledew, 1997, 2007; Silberstein, Striegel-Moore, Timko, &
Rodin, 1988). Although informative and often couched in Deci and Ryan’s
framework, this work has not always been directly aligned with the goal content
perspective advanced in SDT (see Sebire, Standage, & Vansteenkiste, 2008). In
an attempt to extend goal content research to the exercise context, in our recent
work we made a concerted effort to align goal categorizations with the writings
of Deci, Ryan, and their colleagues (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Kasser & Ryan, 1996;
Sheldon, Ryan, Deci, & Kasser, 2004). Aligned with denitions of intrinsic and
extrinsic life aspirations (Kasser & Ryan, 1993, 1996), we labeled domain-spe-
cic exercise goals for health management, skill development, and social afli-
ation as having intrinsic content (i.e., reecting a more self-actualizing
orientation), and exercise goals of image improvement and social recognition as
having extrinsic content (i.e., an outward orientation) (Sebire et al., 2008). By
studying goal contents that align with the intrinsic/extrinsic goal denitions for-
Exercise Goal Content 191
warded in SDT, we can attempt to further understand motivation for exercise by
gaining conceptual precision, which in turn facilitates the examination of theo-
retically derived hypotheses.1
There is a growing body of empirical evidence to suggest that exercising in
the service of intrinsic and extrinsic goals yields differential outcomes. For exam-
ple, although not coming from a SDT perspective, Crawford and Eklund’s (1994)
work with a sample of college-age females documented that the exercise goal of
improved appearance (i.e., an extrinsic goal) was positively related, whereas
health goals (i.e., an intrinsic goal) were unrelated, to social physique anxiety.
Similarly, among regularly exercising undergraduate students, holding appear-
ance-based exercise goals has been shown to correlate positively with indices of
ill-being and negatively with self-esteem (Maltby & Day, 2001). Lastly, in a
sample of male and female rst-time tness center members, tness, competence
(measuring skill development) and social interaction goals positively correlated
with class attendance and workout enjoyment, whereas appearance goals were
unrelated to attendance, exercise adherence, and enjoyment (Ryan, Frederick,
Lepes, Rubio, & Sheldon, 1997, Study 2).
Although the lack of a measure of exercise-based goal content aligned with
the conceptualization of intrinsic and extrinsic goals within SDT has precluded
past research from exploring the concomitants of participants’ reported goals,
experimental work has examined the contextual promotion of intrinsic and extrin-
sic goals (see Vansteenkiste, Soenens, & Lens, 2007 for a review). For example,
Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, and Deci (2004, Study 3) compared a group
of high school students who, before learning tae-bo exercises, read a motivational
script based on intrinsic goals (informing them that learning tae-bo could help
improve their tness / health) with students who read an extrinsic goal-focused
motivational script (informing them that learning tae-bo exercise was a useful way
to improve their appearance). The intrinsic goal-framing group displayed greater
behavioral persistence and graded performance on the tae-bo exercise.
In a further study, Vansteenkiste, Simons, Soenens, and Lens (2004) demon-
strated that students exposed to an intrinsic goal manipulation displayed better
performance and greater short- and long-term behavioral persistence at the tae-bo
exercise than students in a control group who were not exposed to any goal manip-
ulation (i.e., neither intrinsic nor extrinsic goal promotion). Those exposed to an
extrinsic goal manipulation displayed reduced performance compared with both
those participants involved in the control and intrinsic goal condition. Interest-
ingly, the pattern of persistence of those involved in the extrinsic goal relative to
the control group was mixed, with extrinsic goal framing resulting in less short-
term persistence, greater medium-term persistence, and equally low long-term
persistence. Follow-up within-condition correlation analyses indicated, however,
that extrinsic goal-oriented individuals’ persistence was not associated with enjoy-
ment and valuation of the activity, whereas it was for those in the control group.
Vansteenkiste, Simons, Soenens, et al. (2004) argued that the persistence of those
in the extrinsic goal condition was less authentic in nature, presumably because it
was more strongly oriented toward attaining the primed external indicators of
worth. Nevertheless, the ndings showed that extrinsic goal framing might prompt
individuals to put forth extra effort in the exercise activity at hand.
192 Sebire, Standage, and Vansteenkiste
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goal Content
and Psychological Need Satisfaction
From the SDT perspective, the aforementioned differential effects of intrinsic and
extrinsic exercise goal pursuit are brought about owing to the degree to which the
different goal contents promote satisfaction of individuals’ basic psychological
needs. Within SDT, three psychological needs are forwarded: autonomy (to expe-
rience oneself as the originator of one’s behavior), competence (to feel that one
can master challenges), and relatedness (to feel a sense of meaningful connected-
ness within one’s social milieu) (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
Supporting this theoretical reasoning, Rijavec, Brdar, and Miljković (2006)
reported intrinsic, relative to extrinsic life goal pursuit to be positively associated
with general need satisfaction (also see Kasser, 2002, for an overview). Further,
work in the organizational domain has found the suppression of employees’ psy-
chological need satisfaction within the work place to mediate the negative rela-
tionships between relative extrinsic work goal pursuit and work-related outcomes
(viz., job vitality, job satisfaction, and dedication) (Vansteenkiste, Neyrinck et al.,
2007). As the satisfaction of one’s basic psychological needs represents a critical
mechanism by which the disparate effects of intrinsic and extrinsic goal pursuit on
outcome variables may be explained (Vansteenkiste, Soenens et al., 2007), in the
present work we expected need satisfaction to mediate the Relative Intrinsic
Goal ➞ Outcome Variable relationship.
Distinguishing Exercise Goal Content
and Behavioral Regulation
It is important to note that within SDT, the content of goals (i.e., intrinsic vs.
extrinsic) is conceptually distinguished from the behavioral regulation with
which goals are pursued (i.e., whether one’s motivation is autonomous or con-
trolled). Whereas autonomous motivation stems from the inherent satisfaction or
pleasure that a behavior brings (intrinsic motivation) from aligning one’s actions
with other aspects of the self (integrated regulation) or from personally valuing
a behavior (identied regulation), controlled motivation reects behavioral
enactment to attain ego enhancement, to suppress intraindividual feelings of
guilt, shame, and anxiety (introjected regulation), or to comply with external
pressuring demands (external regulation) (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Theoretically, it
is maintained that intrinsic and extrinsic goals can be pursued for both autono-
mous and controlled reasons (Deci & Ryan, 2000). To illustrate the distinction,
an individual may attend an exercise class to improve their health (an intrinsic
goal) because they personally value good health (autonomous behavioral regula-
tion), or because they feel pressured to improve their health by a medical practi-
tioner (controlled behavioral regulation). Alternatively, an individual may work
out to improve their appearance and physical appeal (an extrinsic goal) because
they personally value looking good (autonomous behavioral regulation) or
because they feel guilty if they do not look good for their partner (controlled
Exercise Goal Content 193
Although goal contents and behavioral regulations are conceptually separated
within SDT, debate exists as to whether this theorizing is supported empirically.
Specically, Carver and Baird (1998) and Srivastava, Locke, and Bartol (2001)
have challenged the ndings of previous investigations of goal content and well-
being (Kasser & Ryan, 1993, 1996) by suggesting that the detrimental effects of
pursuing nancial success aspirations were reducible to the controlled behavioral
regulation associated with such extrinsic goal pursuit. In response to these sugges-
tions, Sheldon et al. (2004) reported a series of studies showing that even though
intrinsic and extrinsic goals are positively correlated with autonomous and con-
trolled behavioral regulations, respectively, both facets predict well-being and
adjustment outcomes at the global life level. Such work supports the tenets of
SDT and implies that both goal content and behavioral regulation are important in
understanding the cognitive and affective correlates of motivational pursuits (Deci
& Ryan, 2000).
In the exercise context, mixed support has emerged with respect to the dis-
tinction between goal content and behavioral regulation in predicting behavioral
outcomes. For instance, in a study of adolescents’ exercise goals as individual
difference variables, Gillison, Standage, and Skevington (2006) found that in line
with the theoretical hypotheses set out in SDT, relationships between intrinsic
and extrinsic exercise goal content and self-reported exercise behavior were only
partially mediated by self-determined exercise motivation. In contrast, a recent
study by Ingledew and Markland (2008) found support for a motivational model
specifying exercise goal content as an antecedent to exercise behavioral regula-
tion, which in turn predicted exercise engagement. Similar ndings have been
reported in investigations in which exercise goals were experimentally manipu-
lated (Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, et al., 2004, Study 3). In this instance, after
controlling for students’ autonomous motivation, manipulated exercise goal con-
tent did not directly predict behavioral persistence assessed via student participa-
tion in a free-choice exercise activity although it was uniquely predictive of
students’ rated performance.
The Present Research
This investigation had two main purposes. The rst aim was to extend SDT-based
research that has previously focused on life aspirations to the exercise domain
and explore whether intrinsic relative to extrinsic exercise goals were associated
with adaptive exercise outcomes. We hypothesized that relative intrinsic exercise
goals would positively predict physical self-worth, psychological well-being,
exercise behavior, and psychological need satisfaction and would negatively pre-
dict exercise anxiety. These variables provide a broad set of outcomes to investi-
gate the effect of different exercise goal pursuit that align with SDT and are
relevant to exercise and general life contexts. Within this aim, aligned with previ-
ous work in the general life domain (Sheldon et al., 2004), we sought to explore
whether the relationships identied between goals and outcomes would remain
signicant above and beyond exercise-based behavioral regulations. In addition,
we expected these relationships to be present after controlling for the effects of
two demographic variables (i.e., age and gender). There is evidence to suggest
194 Sebire, Standage, and Vansteenkiste
that advancing age is negatively related to social physique anxiety (Thøgersen-
Ntoumani & Ntoumanis, 2006) and physical activity (Davis & Fox, 2006) and is
differently associated with aspects of psychological well-being (Keyes & Water-
man, 2003). In addition, relative to females, males report greater participation in
health- promoting physical activity (Martin, Morrow, Jackson, & Dunn, 2000),
greater physical self-worth (Fox & Corbin, 1989; Hayes, Crocker, & Kowalski,
1999), and less social physique anxiety (Thøgersen-Ntoumani & Ntoumanis,
2006). Our second aim was to explore the hypothesized mediating role of need
satisfaction in the relationships proposed in SDT to exist between relative intrin-
sic exercise goals and exercise-related outcomes. It was hypothesized that psy-
chological need satisfaction would mediate these associations.
The initial pool of respondents comprised 424 council employees (i.e., administra-
tive, professional, clerical, and technical employees of local government). To ensure
that the sample consisted only of individuals who reported participation in at least
some mild exercise, 14 individuals who reported no mild, moderate, or vigorous
exercise sessions were excluded from subsequent analyses. The nal sample (N =
410) consisted of 118 males and 292 females (M age = 41.39 years; SD = 11.02;
range = 20–67 years); 97.5% of participants were White.
Following the approval of a local ethics committee and the consent of seven Local
Authorities from the South West of England, an e-mail was sent inviting employ-
ees to participate in an online study of exercise attitudes and behaviors. Data were
collected using online questionnaires, accessed through a URL to the study Web
site that was included in the recruitment e-mail. Participants were required to tick
a box indicating their informed consent. Nonconsenting participants were invited
to close their Web browser.
Exercise Goal Content. The Goal Content for Exercise Questionnaire (GCEQ;
Sebire et al., 2008) is a 20-item measure that assesses the importance that people
place on three intrinsic (health management, skill development, and social aflia-
tion) and two extrinsic (image and social recognition) exercise goals each indexed
by four items. Participants responded to the stem “please indicate to what extent
these goals are important for you while exercising” using a 7-point scale ranging
from 1 (not at all important) to 7 (extremely important). In the present work, the
internal consistency of the subscales was as follows: health management = .80,
skill development = .86, social afliation = .82, image = .87, and social
recognition = .92. A relative intrinsic goals variable2 was calculated by subtract-
ing the mean of extrinsic goal subscales ( = .83) from the mean of intrinsic goal
subscales ( = .85). Because the GCEQ is a recently developed instrument, we
Exercise Goal Content 195
performed both rst- and second-order conrmatory factor analyses to assess evi-
dence pertaining to structural validity. Results supported the structural validity of
the GCEQ scores in the present sample: First-order CFA: 2(160) = 475.27,
p < .001; CFI = .95; SRMR = .05. Second-order CFA: 2(164) = 596.59, p < .001;
CFI = .93; SRMR = .09.
Exercise Behavioral Regulation. The Behavioral Regulation in Exercise Ques-
tionnaire (BREQ; Mullan, Markland, & Ingledew, 1997) was used to assess the
quality of participants’ motivation toward exercise. Aligned with the conceptual-
ization of motivation forwarded in SDT, the BREQ comprises 15-items assessing
intrinsic, identied, introjected, and external motivational regulations. Items are
preceded by the stem “why do you exercise?” and are scored on a 5-point Likert
scale ranging from 0 (not true for me) to 4 (very true for me). In the current study,
the internal consistency of the subscales were as follows: intrinsic regulation =
.92, identied regulation = .77, introjected regulation = .78, and external regu-
lation = .73. The motivation subscales were used to compute a relative auton-
omy index (RAI). Consistent with theory and past work (e.g., McDonough &
Crocker, 2007; Standage & Gillison, 2007), and after conrming that the four
regulatory styles conformed to a simplex pattern (i.e., more proximal regulations
on the continuum correlated to a higher degree than more distal regulations) in
the present data, the RAI was calculated using the following equation: (external
regulation −2) + (introjected regulation −1) + (identied regulation 1) +
(intrinsic regulation 2).
Psychological Need Satisfaction. Satisfaction of the psychological needs for
autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the context of exercise was assessed
using the Psychological Need Satisfaction in Exercise Questionnaire (PNSE;
Wilson, Rogers, Rodgers, & Wild, 2006). The PNSE assesses each need with six
items scored on a 6-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (false) to 6 (true). In the
current study, the internal consistencies of the subscales were autonomy = .95,
competence = .93, and relatedness = .94. The 18-items were averaged to
create a composite psychological need satisfaction in exercise score ( = .92).3
Exercise Anxiety. Exercise-related social anxiety was assessed via the Physical
Activity and Sport Anxiety Scale (PASAS; Norton, Hope, & Weeks, 2004). The
PASAS is a 16-item measure that assesses individuals’ fear of negative evaluation
and related avoidance in the physical activity and athletic domains (e.g., “I feel
nervous if other people are watching me when I am exercising / working out”)
using a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (extremely uncharacteristic of me) to
5 (extremely characteristic of me). Item responses were summed to form an anxi-
ety score ( = .94).
Physical Self-Worth. The six-item physical self-worth subscale from the
Physical Self Perception Prole (PSPP; Fox & Corbin, 1989) was used to assess
perceptions of worth regarding aspects of the physical self (i.e., happiness, sat-
isfaction, pride, respect and condence). When completing the PSPP, partici-
pants are presented with two statements describing how a person perceives their
physical self: for example, “Some people feel extremely satised with the kind
of person they are physically BUT others sometimes feel a little dissatised
with their physical selves.” Participants are rst asked to decide which of the
196 Sebire, Standage, and Vansteenkiste
statements best describes them and then to endorse the chosen statement as
either sort of true for me or very true for me. Reverse scoring was applied to
appropriate items, and the six items were then averaged to form an overall phys-
ical self-worth score ( = .87).
Leisure Time Exercise Participation. The Godin Leisure Time Exercise Ques-
tionnaire (LTEQ; Godin & Shephard, 1985) was employed to obtain self-reported
frequency of participation in mild, moderate, and strenuous exercise in bouts
greater than 15 min during a typical week. A total exercise index was computed
by assigning the mild, moderate, and strenuous scores weights of 3, 5, and 9
METs (metabolic equivalents), respectively, and summing these weighted
scores. The LTEQ has demonstrated validity in comparison with objective
assessment tools such as accelerometers (Jacobs, Ainsworth, Hartman, & Leon,
Psychological Well-Being. Consistent with past work (e.g., Ryan & Deci,
2001), two indicators were combined to provide a composite score of psychologi-
cal well-being. The seven-item Subjective Vitality Scale (Ryan & Frederick, 1997)
was used to assess feelings of vitality (e.g., “I feel energized”). Items are scored
on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).
The alpha coefcient in the current study was = .94. In addition, the Depression-
Happiness Scale (McGreal & Joseph, 1993) was employed to assess feelings of
depression and happiness experienced in the past week. This scale consists of 25
items (e.g., “I felt cheerful” and “I felt like crying”) rated on a 4-point Likert scale
ranging from 0 (never) to 3 (often). Responses were scored in a bipolar fashion in
which depression item scores were reversed and then summed with scores on hap-
piness items ( = .93). Higher scores reect greater perceptions of happiness and
lower feelings of depression. Scores for vitality and depression-happiness were
summed to form a composite psychological well-being variable.
Descriptive Statistics and Relationships
Among Study Variables
Table 1 presents descriptive statistics and bivariate correlations showing associa-
tions among the study variables. Participant age was positively, albeit weakly
correlated with psychological well-being, and negatively correlated with exercise
behavior. In addition, independent t-tests revealed that females reported signi-
cantly greater exercise anxiety than males (Ms = 40.82, SD = 15.04, and 35.01,
SD = 13.65, respectively) t(422) = −3.62, p < .01 (Hedges’s g = 0.40), and signi-
cantly lower physical self-worth (Ms = 2.42, SD = 0.63, and 2.65, SD = 0.55,
respectively) t(422) = 3.39, p < .01 (Hedges’s g = −0.38). Females also tended to
report less exercise participation than males (Ms = 39.71, SD = 24.52, and 44.64,
SD = 21.70 respectively) t(422) = 1.92, p = .06 (Hedges’s g = −0.21). As expected,
relative intrinsic exercise goals correlated positively with RAI.4 Further, both
goal constructs displayed correlations with the dependent variables in the
Table 1 Descriptive Statistics and Bivariate Correlations Among Study Variables
Variable M SD 12345678
1. Age 41.39 11.02 —
2. Relative intrinsic goals 0.92 1.05 .11* —
3. Relative autonomy 6.37 3.27 .18* .41** —
4. Need satisfaction 4.17 0.89 −.07# .29** .50** —
5. Exercise anxiety 39.14 14.87 −.08 −.33** −.45** −.28** —
6. Physical self-worth 2.50 0.62 .10* .36** .52** .42** −.54** —
7. Exercise behavior 41.13 22.62 −.09 .13** .38** .34** −.23** .28** —
8. Psychological well-being 57.51 13.06 .15** .29** .46** .27** −.39** .51** .23** —
Note. *p < .05, **p < .01.
198 Sebire, Standage, and Vansteenkiste
Effects of Relative Intrinsic Goal Content
on Criterion Variables
As previous work has shown goal content and behavioral regulations to be corre-
lated (Sheldon et al., 2004), before conducting the regression analyses the data
were screened for evidence of collinearity in line with the recommendations of
(Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007). The variance ination factor (1.00–1.21) and toler-
ance (0.83–1.00) statistics resided within acceptable ranges. In addition, we simul-
taneously screened the condition indexes and the variance proportion factors
(Edmunds, Ntoumanis, & Duda, 2006; Pedhazur, 1997). The results suggested that
collinearity was not evident in our data as when the condition index exceeded 10,
no two predictors displayed variance proportion factors greater than .50.
Five separate hierarchical (or sequential) regression analyses were con-
ducted to examine the utility of relative intrinsic goal content in predicting the
criterion variables (viz., physical self-worth, exercise anxiety, exercise behav-
ior, psychological well-being, and psychological need satisfaction). This
is (a) aligned with previous work analyzing the unique contributions
of goal content and behavioral regulations (i.e., Sheldon et al., 2004) and (b)
appropriate to answer the scientic question at hand by providing the unique
variance (or contribution) accounted for by the theoretical set of variables in an
incremental and cumulative fashion (cf. Cohen, Cohen, West, & Aiken, 2003).
In view of the preliminary analysis that showed associations between some
dependent variables and gender and age, these demographic variables were
entered in Step 1 of each regression analysis. Relative intrinsic goals were
entered at Step 2. At Step 3, exercise RAI was entered so as to examine whether
relationships between participants’ relative intrinsic goal scores and the depen-
dent variables remained signicant after controlling for relative autonomous
motivation toward exercise.
The results of the hierarchical regressions are displayed in Table 2. In line
with our hypotheses, after controlling for age and gender, relative intrinsic goal
content positively predicted signicant variance in physical self-worth, exercise
behavior, psychological well-being, and psychological need satisfaction and
was negatively related to exercise anxiety. All of these relationships, except for
the relationship between relative intrinsic goal content and exercise behavior5
remained signicant at the nal step after entering relative autonomous
Mediating Role of Basic Need Satisfaction
Another important aim of this research was to examine whether basic need sat-
isfaction would mediate the observed associations between relative intrinsic
goal content and the dependent variables. Because the bivariate correlations and
hierarchical regression analyses identied relationships between relative intrin-
sic goal content and four of the ve dependent variables, we sought to further
examine the role of psychological need satisfaction in the relations between
relative intrinsic goal content and physical self-worth, exercise anxiety, and psy-
chological well-being, thus excluding exercise behavior. Structural equation
modeling using AMOS Version 7.0 (Arbuckle, 2006) was used to examine these
Table 2 Hierarchical Regression Analyses Predicting Physical Self-worth, Exercise Anxiety, Exercise Behavior,
Psychological Well-Being and Psychological Need Satisfaction From Age, Gender, Relative Intrinsic Goal Content,
and Relative Autonomy
Step 1 .03 .03 .01 .02 .01
Age .10 1.96* −.08 −1.57 −.09 −1.92 .15 3.01** −.07 −1.48
Gender −.16 −3.18** .18 3.64** −.10 −2.01* −.04 −0.71 −.08 −1.63
Step 2 .15 .13 .03 .09 .10
Age .06 1.25 −.04 −0.90 −.11 −2.23* .12 2.47* −.11 −2.25*
Gender −.15 −3.20** .17 3.67** −.10 −1.95 −.03 −0.59 −.06 −1.55
Relative intrinsic goals .35 7.67** −.32 −6.86** .14 2.83** .28 5.92** .30 6.42**
Step 3 .30 .24 .16 .22 .27
Age .03 0.60 −.01 −0.33 −.14 −3.04** .09 2.00* −.14 −3.29**
Gender −.12 −2.85** .15 3.35** −.07 −1.52 −.00 −0.05 −.04 −1.01
Relative intrinsic goals .18 3.99** −.17 −3.63** −.02 −0.41 .12 2.58** .12 2.63*
Relative autonomy .43 9.51** −.37 −7.82** .40 8.06** .40 8.27** .46 9.88**
Note. Adj R2 = Adjusted R2. *p < .05, **p < .01.
200 Sebire, Standage, and Vansteenkiste
The covariance matrix was analyzed using the maximum likelihood estima-
tion method. Inspection of the Mardia’s coefcient (13.01, critical ratio = 7.92)
revealed multivariate nonnormality in the data. Accordingly, analyses were per-
formed using a bootstrapping technique (see Efron & Tibshirani, 1993). In line
with recommendations of Preacher and Hayes (2008) 5000 bootstrap samples
with replacement based on the original sample were requested. Bootstrapping is
benecial under conditions of nonnormality as the bootstrap-generated standard
errors provide a more accurate indication of the parameter estimate stability
(Byrne, 2001; Nevitt & Hancock, 2001).
In line with the two-index presentation strategy advanced by Hu and Bentler
(1998), model t was deemed satisfactory where the comparative t index (CFI)
was >.90 (Bentler, 1995) and excellent where CFI was close to or >.95 (Hu &
Bentler, 1999). For the standardized root mean square of the residual (SRMR),
values of .08 (or lower) are indicative of well-specied models (Bentler, 1995).
Commensurate with recent recommendations (Cheung & Lau, 2008; MacKinnon,
Lockwood, & Williams, 2004; Shrout & Bolger, 2002) the mediating effect of
psychological need satisfaction was explored by examining the 95% upper and
lower limits of bootstrap-generated bias-corrected condence intervals (CI) of the
To permit an adequate participant-to-estimated parameter ratio, latent vari-
ables representing relative intrinsic goals, physical self-worth, and exercise anxi-
ety were created using a parceling technique. In a discussion of the arguments for
and against the parceling technique, Little, Cunningham, Shahar, and Widaman
(2002) contend that when the primary aim of analysis is to understand the asso-
ciations between latent variables rather than associations between items, parcel-
ing is appropriate as it is a pragmatic solution that (a) reduces the number of
estimated parameters in structural equation models thus aiding identication and
(b) may reduce nonnormality within data. Physical self-worth and exercise anxi-
ety latent variables were indexed by two randomly generated parcels each, formed
by averaging the sum of the appropriate randomly selected items. Two parcels
representing relative intrinsic goals were created by subtracting the average of
half of the extrinsic goal items from the average of half of the intrinsic goal items
(ensuring balanced representation of each goal factor in each parcel). This pro-
cess was repeated with the remaining halves of the extrinsic and intrinsic goal
items to create the second parcel. In line with previous research (Deci et al.,
2001; Standage, Duda, & Ntoumanis, 2005), a latent variable representing total
need satisfaction was indexed using autonomy, competence, and relatedness sub-
scale scores as indicators. Subjective vitality and depression-happiness scores
served as two independent observed indicators for the psychological well-being
latent variable. Owing to signicant correlations between the three psychosocial
dependent variables (see Table 1) their disturbance terms were allowed to covary.
These minor modications resulted in an adequate participant to estimated
parameter ratio (15:1; Bentler & Chou, 1987) and the model was found to be ade-
Aligned with the hypothesized sequence of motivational processes advanced
in SDT, a model (Figure 1) was tested in which relative intrinsic goals predicted
psychological need satisfaction, which in turn (positively) predicted physical self-
worth and psychological well-being and (negatively) predicted exercise anxiety.
Exercise Goal Content 201
This model displayed a satisfactory t to the data: 2(37) = 194.26, p < .001; CFI
= .93; SRMR = .07. The standardized parameter estimates showed relative intrin-
sic goal content scores to positively predict psychological need satisfaction, which
was in turn positively predictive of physical self-worth and psychological well-
being and negatively predictive of exercise anxiety. The signicant standardized
indirect effects observed between relative intrinsic goals and the dependent vari-
ables—physical self-worth, = .29, 95% CI = .17 to .42; exercise anxiety, =
−.21, 95% CI = −.31 to −.12; and psychological well-being, = .26, 95% CI = .16
to .38—supported a mediating role of psychological need satisfaction as advanced
To examine whether psychological need satisfaction fully or partially medi-
ated the effects of relative intrinsic goal content on the dependent variables, a
second model which specied direct paths from relative intrinsic exercise goals to
physical self-worth, exercise anxiety, and psychological well-being was tested.
This respecied model (Figure 2) displayed improved t to the data: 2(34) =
168.78, p < .001; CFI = .94; SRMR = .05. Examination of the bootstrap-generated
bias-corrected CIs revealed that in addition to signicant direct effects (which are
aligned with the results of the rst model), signicant standardized indirect effects
emerged for relative intrinsic goal content on physical self-worth ( = .17, 95% CI
= .10 to .26), exercise anxiety ( = −.11, 95% CI = −.18 to −.06), and psychologi-
cal well-being ( = .17, 95% CI = .09 to .28). Such ndings support partial media-
tion. Inspection of the percentage of the total effect that was attributable to the
indirect effect (physical self-worth = 40%, exercise anxiety = 31%, and psychologi-
cal well-being = 56%) suggested that a substantial amount of the variance in the
outcome variables was accounted for by the mediating role of need satisfaction.
Figure 1 — Preliminary structural model showing relationships between relative intrinsic
exercise goals, psychological need satisfaction, and outcomes as hypothesized within self-
determination theory. Note. All paths are standardized and signicant (i.e., Z > 1.96). Boot-
strap standard errors of the parameter estimates are shown in parentheses. The correlations
between the disturbance terms of the dependent variables were rphysical self-worth–exercise anxiety =
−.42, rexercise anxiety–psychological well-being = −.20, and rphysical self-worth–psychological well-being = .36.
202 Sebire, Standage, and Vansteenkiste
The present study examined (a) the relationship between relative intrinsic exercise
goal content and a range of exercise-related outcomes and psychological well-
being and (b) the mediating role of exercise-based psychological need satisfaction
in the relationships between relative intrinsic exercise goals and the dependent
variables. In general, the ndings supported our hypotheses and the theoretical
tenets put forth in SDT (cf. Deci & Ryan, 2000).
Relative Intrinsic Exercise Goals
Previous work has documented positive associations between valuing intrinsic
relative to extrinsic goals and adaptive outcomes at a global level (Kasser & Ryan,
1993, 1996) and in specic life domains (Vansteenkiste, Neyrinck et al., 2007).
Extending this work to the exercise context, our results support such ndings, as
placing greater importance on intrinsic goals (i.e., improving one’s health, advanc-
ing one’s exercise skills, or fostering meaningful relationships) relative to extrinsic
goals (i.e., enhancing one’s image and being recognized for one’s exercise behav-
iors) were positively associated with reported exercise engagement, physical self-
worth, and psychological well-being and negatively associated with feelings of
anxiety. Our study is the rst in the exercise context to use a relative-goal approach
as recommended within the SDT literature (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Sheldon et al.,
2004). The ndings support previous research using absolute intrinsic and extrin-
sic exercise goals (Crawford & Eklund, 1994; Maltby & Day, 2001; Ryan et al.,
1997, Study 2) and advance such inquiry by highlighting the adaptive outcomes of
adopting an exercise goal orientation dominated by intrinsic pursuits.
Figure 2 — Revised structural model showing direct and indirect relationships between
relative intrinsic exercise goals, psychological need satisfaction, and outcomes. Note. All
paths are standardized and signicant (i.e., Z > 1.96). Bootstrap standard errors of the pa-
rameter estimates are shown in parentheses. The correlations between the disturbance terms
of the dependent variables were rphysical self-worth–exercise anxiety = –.42, rexercise anxiety–psychological well-
being = –.23, and rphysical self-worth–psychological well-being = .40.
Exercise Goal Content 203
Not only does the present data show intrinsic goal content to contribute to
more adaptive affective and behavioral functioning in exercise, but also that most
of these effects remain signicant when controlling for the effects of exercisers’
relative autonomous regulation toward exercise engagement. This is an important
nding, as some researchers (e.g., Carver & Baird, 1998; Srivastava et al., 2001)
have criticized the differentiation between intrinsic and extrinsic goals for being
conceptually analogous to the distinction between autonomous and controlled
behavioral regulation. Both types of conceptualizations are indeed empirically
related to one another, as also shown in the present research, presumably because
they both assess exercisers’ quality of motivation. Nevertheless, commensurate
with previous ndings pertaining to life aspirations (Sheldon et al., 2004), the
relationships identied between relative intrinsic exercise goals and physical self-
worth, well-being, and exercise anxiety remained signicant after accounting for
relative autonomous exercise motivation. Relative autonomous motivation yielded
a signicant effect on all outcomes in the expected directions, thereby supporting
the ndings of previous research (Thøgersen-Ntoumani & Ntoumanis, 2006;
Wilson, Rodgers, Fraser, & Murray, 2004).
No independent effect of relative intrinsic goal content over relative autono-
mous motivation was found for self-reported exercise behavior. Although depart-
ing from our hypothesis, this nding is consistent with previous observations
regarding objective behavioral (rather than self-reported) indices of exercise
(Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens et al., 2004) and aligns with a model of motivation
forwarded by Ingledew and Markland (2008). With the latter in mind, Ingledew
and Markland’s model species goal content as an antecedent to behavioral regu-
lation which in turn positively predicts exercise engagement. While supporting
the empirical evidence pointing toward the benecial cognitive and affective con-
sequences of both relative intrinsic goals and relative autonomous motivation
(Sheldon et al., 2004), our ndings suggest that relative intrinsic exercise goal
content may be predictive of exercise behavior to the degree that it is associated
with autonomous vs. controlled exercise behavioral regulation. Perhaps a feasible
explanation for this null nding may reside with potential variations in the tempo-
ral focus of the “what” and “why” variables couched within SDT. Specically, it
may be that the focus on the content of one’s exercise goals (or the “what” facet)
are too distal (e.g., the promise of social recognition, the ideal appearance, etc) to
predict recently enacted behavior, especially above and beyond the reasons (or
“why”) by which one is motivated to act. As the present data showed intrinsic and
extrinsic goals to be associated with autonomous and controlled motivation
respectively, future longitudinal research would do well to examine whether the
“why” facet of SDT serves to mediate the effects of one’s goal content on recent-
and longer-term patterns of exercise behavior.
Future work might also want to examine the null effect of goal content on
exercise behavior using improved methodological procedures. First, similar to
recent work (e.g., Standage, Sebire, & Loney, 2008) examining the relationships
between motivational regulations and exercise behavior, future research might
want to advance on the current ndings, employing more objective estimates of
exercise engagement (i.e., rather than self-reported) before any rm conclusions
can be drawn regarding the utility of the “what” in predicting behavioral exer-
cise engagement above and beyond the “why”. Second, in doing so, it would be
204 Sebire, Standage, and Vansteenkiste
particularly useful to examine the emotional experience that goes along with
exercising, because it is possible that, although relatively intrinsic and extrinsic
goal-oriented individuals may not engage in exercise to a quantitatively different
degree, the exercise engagement might be associated with more feelings of anxi-
ety and negative affect rather than vitality and positive affect. In line with such a
suggestion, Vansteenkiste, Simons, Soenens, et al. (2004) found that the exercise
engagement of participants involved in an extrinsic goal framing condition was
less authentic relative to those involved in an intrinsic goal condition. Third,
longitudinal assessment of exercise engagement would be advantageous, as
extrinsic goal valuation might prompt some initial exercise engagement but is
unlikely to foster long-term exercise adherence (Vansteenkiste, Simons, Soenens,
et al., 2004).
Considering the amount of variance in all assessed outcomes that is accounted
for by relative intrinsic goal content and relative autonomous behavioral regula-
tion, it should be noted that in each case relative autonomous behavioral regulation
accounted for a greater proportion of variance than did goal content. These ndings
are in line with those of Sheldon et al. (2004), who found autonomous and controlled
reasons to be more strongly predictive of well-being than were goal contents.
reason why this might be the case is that goals are by denition more cognitive in
nature, while autonomous and controlled regulations rather reect subjective expe-
riences, which are more likely to be associated with affective outcomes, such as the
ones assessed in the present research. For instance, discriminating attitudes toward
obese or less active individuals might be more strongly affected by exercisers’ goal
content than by their exercise regulation (see Duriez, Vansteenkiste, Soenens, &
Dewitte, 2007), an issue that might be investigated in future work.
From an applied perspective, our ndings suggest that exercisers and exercise
practitioners alike may benet by paying attention to the explicit content of their
own, or their clients exercise goals respectively, in addition to the behavioral regula-
tions attributed to the goals. In future work conducted in ecologically valid exercise
settings, researchers may wish to study the degree to which exercise environments,
promotion schemes, and practitioners advocate intrinsic and extrinsic exercise goals
and the associations that such goal promotions may have with people’s exercise
goals, behavioral regulation, and the engagement, enjoyment, and experience of
Exercise Goals and Psychological Need Satisfaction
The theoretical tenets put forth in SDT hold that relative intrinsic goal pursuit
yields adaptive benets via the facilitation of psychological need satisfaction
(Kasser, Ryan, Couchman, & Sheldon, 2004). This study represents the rst
attempt to test such reasoning in the exercise domain. It was found that relative
intrinsic exercise goals positively predicted psychological need satisfaction. Con-
sistent with the other psychosocial dependent variables in the study, this effect
remained signicant after controlling for participant’s level of self-determination.
In line with past work in other physical activity contexts (McDonough & Crocker,
2007; Reinboth, Duda, & Ntoumanis, 2004), psychological need satisfaction was
positively predictive of well-being and physical self-worth while being negatively
predictive of exercise anxiety.
Exercise Goal Content 205
With regards to mediation, the structural equation modeling analysis showed
that consistent with past work and theoretical propositions (Vansteenkiste et al.,
2006) psychological need satisfaction partially mediated the effect of relative
intrinsic goal content on physical self-worth, exercise anxiety, and well-being.
These ndings align with hypotheses that intrinsic goals promote an inward
orientation and facilitate the satisfaction of one’s psychological needs, whereas
extrinsic goals are oriented toward external indicators of worth and thus thwart
psychological need satisfaction (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Research in the organiza-
tional domain (Vansteenkiste, Neyrinck, et al., 2007) has identied mediation
of the effects of employment goal content on job-related outcomes by psycho-
need satisfaction at work; our results suggest that ascribing more impor-
tance to intrinsic, relative to extrinsic exercise goals has benecial effects on
outcomes both directly, and indirectly via exercise-based psychological need
When attempting to explain why goals with diverse content might differently
satisfy psychological needs, goal content researchers have proposed various
cognitive-attentional processes (labeled micromediational mechanisms) hypoth-
esized to be proximally related to intrinsic and extrinsic goal pursuit (see
Vansteenkiste, Soenens, & Duriez, 2008, for an overview). Specically, three
micromediational mechanisms have been forwarded to help understand the
effects of relative intrinsic goal pursuit on basic need satisfaction; that is, the
proposition that extrinsic relative to intrinsic, goals (a) focuses people’s attention
toward factors external to the exercising task, thus undermining a strong absorp-
tion in the task at hand (Vansteenkiste, Matos, Lens, & Soenens, 2007), (b) induces
stressful interpersonal comparisons within the exercise setting, and (c) promotes
a rigid approach to both the exercise activity (i.e., supercial task engagement)
and other people in the exercise setting (i.e., objectifying others rather than fos-
tering meaningful relationships). The attentional shift, engagement in social
comparison processes, and rigid approach that is more likely to go along with the
pursuit of extrinsic, relative to intrinsic, goals might help to explain why extrin-
sic, relative to intrinsic, goal-oriented individuals fail to get their basic needs for
competence, relatedness, and autonomy met. At present, however, research
exploring these mechanisms is in its early stages. Therefore, future studies explor-
ing experiences of, and approaches to exercise of those oriented toward pursuit of
relatively strong intrinsic or extrinsic exercise goals would help to further develop
previously identied processes and perhaps discover alternative micromedia-
The present results are based on data from a homogeneous sample. As such, future
work would do well to extend the ndings from our sample to more diverse popu-
lations. A second limitation of this work is the cross-sectional study design, mean-
ing directional effects can only be inferred from the hypotheses but were not
explicitly tested with the present dataset. Although the tenets set out in SDT and
the present ndings suggest that relative intrinsic goal pursuit yields psychologi-
cal need satisfaction, the goal content–need satisfaction relationship is forwarded
as bidirectional, such that extrinsic goal pursuit may lead to need satisfaction, or
206 Sebire, Standage, and Vansteenkiste
be compensation for previously thwarted psychological needs (Kasser, 2002;
Williams, Cox, Hedberg, & Deci, 2000). Longitudinal research designed to
explore the temporal interplay between exercise-related psychological need satis-
faction and exercise goal content in naturally occurring exercise contexts may
facilitate understanding of the possible cyclical nature of these variables. Finally,
the current study and past research exploring the effects of both the what and why
on exercise behavior has employed self-reported measures of exercise behavior/
participation (Gillison et al., 2006; Ingledew & Markland, 2008). Future work
embracing technological advances in the objective estimation of exercise behavior
(see Standage et al., 2008) may assist in further understanding the interrelation-
ships among the what and why facets of SDT and exercise behavior.
In support of SDT, the present research shows that the content of exercisers’
goals can be useful in understanding adaptive psychosocial exercise outcomes,
and that such inquiry is informative alongside the study of exercise behavioral
regulations. The results also showed that the positive effects of relative intrinsic
exercise goal content on physical self-worth, exercise anxiety, and psychological
well-being were partially mediated by satisfaction of exercisers’ psychological
needs. Together, these ndings highlight the explicit content of exerciser’s goals
as worthy of consideration when attempting to understand important outcomes in
the exercise domain.
1. As conceptual clarity is central to the present work, the term exercise goal content will be
used to refer to the explicit content of exercise goals.
2. A relative extrinsic goal composite variable will give equivalent results to a relative intrin-
sic goal score but with opposite sign. We decided in this study to focus on the relative intrinsic
3. This approach represents a deviation from that used by the authors of the PNSE (Wilson
et al., 2006), although past SDT work has employed a composite need satisfaction score (Deci
et al., 2001). As such we performed a higher order CFA to investigate whether the three PNSE
scores could be represented by a composite need satisfaction variable. After constraining the
uniqueness of the competence variable to zero owing to a negative variance estimate, the t of
the model to the data were as follows: 2(133) = 553.42, p < .001; CFI = .94; SRMR = .05, sup-
porting the use of a composite psychological need satisfaction variable.
4. We conducted a CFA using the GCEQ and BREQ items simultaneously to explore the
constructs representing the “what” and “why”. Nine latent variables were specied reecting the
ve GCEQ and four BREQ subscales. The t of the CFA model to the data were good; 2(524)
= 157.40, p < .001; CFI = .92; SRMR = .06. All items loaded signicantly (p < .001) on their
intended factor with a value of >.42 (71% of factor loadings were ≥ .70). Inspection of modica-
tion indices revealed no problematic cross-loading items.
5. Given that exercise behavioral regulation has been found to be predictive of vigorous and
purposeful engagement in exercise rather than lower intensity incidental behaviors (Edmunds
et al., 2006), we repeated our regression analysis using separate mild, moderate, and strenuous
exercise components of the LTEQ. Both relative intrinsic exercise goal content and exercise
Exercise Goal Content 207
RAI were signicant and positive predictors of moderate and strenuous exercise engagement
intensities. In line with our nding pertaining to total exercise behavior, after entering RAI, the
relationship between relative intrinsic goals and both moderate and strenuous exercise behavior
indices were no longer signicant.
6. At the request of an anonymous reviewer, we repeated the hierarchical regression analysis
using individual intrinsic and extrinsic goal content variables at Step 2 and individual autono-
mous and controlled behavioral regulation variables at Step 3. The results largely replicated the
analyses using relative goal content and behavioral regulation variables. Intrinsic goals posi-
tively, and extrinsic goals negatively, predicted physical self-worth at Steps 2 and 3. Intrinsic
goals negatively, and extrinsic goals positively, predicted exercise anxiety at Steps 2 and 3.
Psychological well-being was positively predicted by intrinsic goals and negatively predicted by
extrinsic goals at Steps 2 and 3. Exercise behavior was positively predicted by intrinsic goals at
Step 2 but not at Step 3. Finally, intrinsic goals were a positive predictor of psychological need
satisfaction at Steps 2 and 3 whereas extrinsic goals did not predict this variable. A table of these
results is available from the rst author on request.
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Manuscript received: April 14, 2008 Revision accepted: October 9, 2008