Home mental fitness Motivation to Workout: A Megastudy Explains What Can Get Us to Exercise

Motivation to Workout: A Megastudy Explains What Can Get Us to Exercise

by Marianne Navada
motivation workout gym

We have devised many ways to motivate us to exercise.

For example, you can have the Apple Watch remind you to close your exercise ring for the day. Or in some yoga studios, you get karma points if you attend a certain number of classes in a month. But how effective are these strategies in getting us to workout? 

A recent megastudy headed by the University of Pennsylvania researchers explores this question. A megastudy allows researchers to test a larger number of hypotheses at ones, given the large sample size. Small sample sizes limited previous studies covering the same topic. It’s hard to compare exercise strategies, for example, for people who live in warm climate vs. cold ones, different age groups, or those who live in urban areas with the suburbs. Megestudies allow us to have a large and diverse pool of individuals. 

Published in Nature, the study has more than 61,000 participants. Researchers tested 54 types of four-week digital programs, the interventions. They also had a control group—randomly chosen individuals that did not receive intervention. 


In collaboration with 24 Hour Fitness, the study measured how many times people went to the gym during the study. During sign-up, researchers asked participants to schedule their gym visits. Rewards are points that can be converted for Amazon cash. You earn a higher reward if you go to the gym during your scheduled time.


  • 45% of the 53 intervention programs increased weekly gym visits by 9% to 27%. 
  • Only 8% of the interventions had an extended effect. Meaning, only 8% of the interventions led to behavioral change after the 4-week experiment, when participants were not longer given interventions.  

Top Most Effective Interventions

  • Giving microrewards to those who returned to the gym after missing a workout.
  • Higher incentives, which translates to more interventions.
  • Reward system that lets participants choose whether they gain or lose points. 
  • Text messages informing participants that most American exercise, and that this number is growing. 

45% of the 53 intervention increased weekly gym visits by 9% to 27%.

The study also surveyed 300 experts in the field about which programs they think motivate us to exercise. There was a disconnect between what the experts thought are effective strategies and what the data revealed. This goes to show the challenges in shaping behavioral patterns and the importance of these megastudies. 

The Takeaway

Motivation stems from different sources. Whether its physical rewards, a digital badge, or motivational reminders, it helps to know which strategy works for you. 

In terms of developing a lifelong practice of working out, perhaps the ultimate goal is to make the workout and the blissful feeling afterwards THE immediate rewards. When I think of how I maintain a yoga practice, I simply enjoy it and the effects. Is the need to get a workout in instrumental? Of course, but it means more than that. 

Looking at the most effective interventions, we learn that not just the value of the reward, but psychological factors motivate us. By rewarding ourselves for bouncing back rather than focusing on missed workouts helps us stay active. Additionally, we learn from the study that more than just text reminders, knowing that others are working out nudges us. We are social beings, after all.

Last, sometimes, the thought of losing motivates us more than accruing. For this reason, losing points for not showing up instead of gaining points when you do the work, gets us to move.

Commit to living.