Moving Denmark: Physical Activity Beliefs and Motivation Within and Across Life

Birgitte Westerskov Dalgas*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: ThesisPh.D. thesis

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This thesis is conducted in response to the growing concerns about sedentary lifestyles and their impact on public health, where understanding the motivational aspects of physical activity has become imperative. I aimed to explore how physical activity beliefs and motivation are influenced within and across life.

The study drew on Theory of Planned Behaviour and Self-determination Theory. Theory of Planned Behaviour focuses on how beliefs, attitudes, and social norms influence behavioural intentions and, consequently, behaviour. Self-determination theory emphasises the role of basic psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—in shaping the quality and sustainability of the motivation behind the behaviour.

The aim of the study was explored through the use of long individual semi-structured interviews with 42 Danish adults selected through purposeful maximum variation sampling (Criteria: Physical activity frequency level, age, gender and geographical location), ensuring a diverse range of experiences with physical activity. The interview data were analysed using codebook thematic analysis, specifically, the framework method, which allowed for the early identification of a framework of themes while maintaining the flexibility for the inductive generation of new themes.

The study was reported in three papers. Paper 1 examined the influence of life transitions on physical activity beliefs and behaviour through the lens of the Theory of Planned Behaviour. Paper 2 explored the variations in psychological need satisfaction, frustration, and unfulfillment within physical activity domains using Self-determination Theory. Paper 3 investigated the restoration of psychological needs after incidences of frustration and unfulfillment in physical activity contexts, focusing on the strategies that individuals employ to restore their psychological needs.

Looking into the results, the first paper identifies six key transitions that notably influence individuals' physical activity beliefs and behaviour. While transitions like beginning school, starting a career, and forming relationships often lead to reduced physical activity intention due to increased sedentary environments and responsibilities, transitions such as leaving home and retiring can enhance physical activity intentions.

The results of the second paper suggest that psychological need satisfaction and frustration in physical activity vary across domains, which influences motivation. The utilitarian view on activities within the transport and household domains often leads to need unfulfillment, while perceived personal relevance and collaborative tasks can enhance need satisfaction. In the occupation domain, alignment with personal interests and social support are crucial for need satisfaction. The results on need satisfaction within the recreational domain underscore a complex interplay between perceived obligation for future health, personal values, and social factors in shaping motivation. These findings highlight the diverse need-supportive nature of physical activity domains and the potential for need satisfaction within each.

The third paper demonstrated that the strategies restoring psychological need after incidences of need frustration and need unfulfillment diverge; individuals 'fight back' against experiences of need unfulfillment by making adjustments or engaging in new activities, whereas they 'flight' from experiences of need frustration by avoiding or disengaging from adverse situations. Our findings further indicate that the context of need frustration—voluntary or obligatory—significantly influences restoration strategy longevity, emphasising the lasting influence of need frustration in physical education.

Synthesising the findings of the three papers, the study demonstrates the significant impact of our life experiences on physical activity beliefs, motivation, and behaviour. It highlights that not only do current life situations, such as transitions and the need-support within different life domains, influence our beliefs in relation to and motivation for physical activity, but early experiences and future expectations also play important roles. Negative experiences in early life, especially within compulsory settings like physical education, can lead to long-term avoidance of physical activities. Conversely, positive anticipations regarding future health can motivate physical activity. However, the quality and sustainability of this motivation are contingent upon the satisfaction of psychological needs within the selected physical activities.

The study enriches the Theory of Planned Behaviour by reconceptualising background factors as active influencers of attitudes, norms, and perceived behavioural control rather than mere controls and suggesting life transitions as a background factor. It also refines Self-determination Theory by distinguishing between need frustration and unfulfillment in the process of restoring psychological need, highlighting the role of human agency in addressing these challenges. 

The findings further provide practical insights for enhancing physical activity through adaptable interventions and strategies, emphasising the significance of life transitions, early life experiences, and a domain-sensitive approach. It highlights the need for context-sensitive, need-supportive measures that consider the unique challenges of different life domains, advocating for interventions that focus on satisfying basic psychological needs to promote sustained physical activity engagement.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Southern Denmark
  • Bredahl, Thomas V. G., Principal supervisor
  • Elmose-Østerlund, Karsten, Co-supervisor
Date of defence7. May 2024
Publication statusPublished - 27. Mar 2024

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