Motivating Participation in Exercise: Using Personal Investment Theory

Kent L. Granzin, University of Utah
Marlys J. Mason, University of Utah
ABSTRACT - This study espouses the usefulness of Personal Investment Theory for understanding motivation to participate in exercise. It investigates PIT’s eleven elements of Meaning for explaining exercise participation and its nine Antecedents to Meaning for understanding the elements of Meaning. A survey sample of both exercisers and non-exercisers empirically linked participation with ten elements of Meaning and linked eight Antecedents with the eleven elements of Meaning.
[ to cite ]:
Kent L. Granzin and Marlys J. Mason (1999) ,"Motivating Participation in Exercise: Using Personal Investment Theory", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 101-106.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 101-106


Kent L. Granzin, University of Utah

Marlys J. Mason, University of Utah


This study espouses the usefulness of Personal Investment Theory for understanding motivation to participate in exercise. It investigates PIT’s eleven elements of Meaning for explaining exercise participation and its nine Antecedents to Meaning for understanding the elements of Meaning. A survey sample of both exercisers and non-exercisers empirically linked participation with ten elements of Meaning and linked eight Antecedents with the eleven elements of Meaning.

Many Americans are unmotivated, unwilling, or unable to participate in exercise in any form. They neither join an organized proram of exercise activities nor follow a personal plan of their own. This widespread lack of participation has stimulated scholars to explain the influences that motivate participation in fitness-related activities. However, a given study typically considers only one or a limited range of explanatory variables. Certainly, even such relatively narrowly focused research is unquestionably important for identifying and extending knowledge about particular motivating variables. Yet it appears one major deterrent to creating a generalized, broad-based explanation for participation in exercise arises from researchers’ failure to integrate their findings into a single model that treats the range of potential motivators in holistic fashion (Gottleib and Baker, 1986). Ideally, such a broad-based conceptual framework would allow researchers to consider not only the characteristics of individuals, but also the social and physical context within which they make a decision about whether and to what extent to participate.

The purpose of this study is to introduce such a conceptual framework, Personal Investment Theory (PIT). This paper describes the conceptual framework and demonstrates its value to those who seek to motivate exercise participation. To do so, we introduce the contribution of relevant previous studies, explain the nature of PIT, and report the findings of an empirical test of PIT in the context of exercise participation.


Scholars have long used persons’ attitudes (broadly defined to include emotions, evaluations, and beliefs) and related behaviors to explain their participation in healthful activities. The current emphasis on health-promotive behavior is relatively new, having evolved from an earlier stress on explaining participation in remedial behaviors. Three decades ago, scholars developed conceptual schemes for explaining persons’ participation in certain remedial behaviors intended to overcome unhealthy conditions, using such constructs as the perceived relevance of these behaviors and the perceived threat from disease (Kasl and Cobb 1966; Rosenstock 1966). Over time, scholars extended these schemes by incorporating constructs representing the costs and benefits of remedial behaviors; one result was the Health Belief Model (Becker 1974; Becker et al. 1977; Janz and Becker 1984).

But persons often act to maintain or improve their health, to prevent illness before it occurs, rather than correct an existing health problem (Ardell 1977; Bloch 1984). To explain this lifestyle, the Expanded Health Belief Model (Burns 1992) explains preventive health practices using demographics, perceptions, beliefs, and associated behaviors. Other recent contributions use health motivation, health ability, and demographics to explain consumers’ preventive health behavior (Moorman and Matulich 1993), demographics to explain search for and use of preventive health care information (Cangelosi and Markham 1994), and health consciousness and scientific health orientation to explain behaviors and attitudes relevant to wellness (Plank and Gould 1990).

While integrative in nature, these efforts have not yet produced a generally applicable, comprehensive conceptual scheme whose viability has been empirically supported. This study commends to this use the Personal Investment Theory of Maehr and Braskamp (1986). PIT proposes a set of motivators that seem particularly applicable for explaining such health-promotive behavior as participation in physical exercise. The constructs, or similar constructs, have been shown to be pertinent to this context by previous health-related studies. Our exposition of PIT addresses this salient research question: What constructs act directly to motivate participation in exercise and also elaborate our understanding of these motivators? To answer this question, we describe PIT and propose certain relationships between its onstructs.


Maehr and Braskamp’s (1986) Personal Investment Theory provides a general conceptual scheme for studying motivation. Their broad-based, yet relatively parsimonious conceptual framework reflects their work in the fields of educational psychology, motivation, and human resource management. PIT asserts that such investments as the time, effort, and money spent to maintain or improve themselves are motivated by the Meaning persons associate with a decision situation. PIT integrates salient characteristics of both the individual and the decision context (please see the Figure), combining behavioristic and cognitive approaches to understanding motivation. While PIT is conceptual in nature, it is based on the empirical investigations of its authors and other scholars. Small segments of the conceptual scheme have received independent empirical support from other researchers who have reported statistical linkages between certain PIT constructs and behavior (Chaumeton and Duda 1988; Duda and Tappe 1988; Duda, Smart and Tappe 1989). Because each of these illuminating studies has examined only a subset of the relationships recommended by PIT, it remains to demonstrate the full richness of PIT by examining all of the relationships it suggests.

PIT holds that the Meaning a person creates in the form of the beliefs, perceptions, feelings, purposes, and goals evoked in the current situation motivates behavior. These cognitive elements are the key to understanding this motivation and predicting investment behavior such as exercise participation. Current Meaning may reflect the person’s personality and the situation as causal agents. PIT holds that by recognizing such antecedents of Meaning as both the person’s past experience and the present environment of the decision, we gain a better, richer understanding of the influence of Meaning on behavior. Thus, while current Meaning is the key concept, full adaptation of PIT to a given context requires an understanding of both the Meaning and the Antecedents to Meaning that are relevant to the decision.

As shown in the Figure, the conceptual framework features three major segments: Meaning, Antecedents to Meaning, and Personal Investment. The Meaning segment comprises three components, the Antecedents segment comprises five components, and the output segment of PIT contains behavior as its sole component. Meaning features primarily concurrent motivators (e.g., Task incentives), while Antecedents to Meaning features relatively enduring conditions and influences that the participant brings into the situation (e.g., Personal Experiences). Because they all play a part in motivating behavior, these Meaning and Antecedents constructs will be referred to generically as motivators. Note that although PIT proposes its constructs to predict behavior, it does not specify causal links among the individual motivators; presumably, such links can differ with the context to which PIT is applied.



The Structure of Meaning

As shown in the Figure, the Meaning segment lies proximate to Personal Investment, the output segment of PIT; Meaning directly affects the behavioral choice persons make from the set of available, alternative courses of action. In the basic scheme, the cognitive elements of Meaning are represented by ten constructs that are organized into the three core components that constitute the Meaning segment: Personal Incentives, Sense of Self, and Perceived Options. Examples of items used to represent these constructs are available from the authors.

Personal Incentives. The Personal Incentives component of Meaning represents what a person finds attractive/unattractive, the valued outcomes or benefits a person hopes to achieve in the circumstance that requires a decision. Personal Incentives may be intrinsic or extrinsic. In intrinsic form, these otivators may occur as Task incentives that reflect wanting to become absorbed in the task at hand or to develop a skill. Alternatively, they may arise as Ego incentives that reflect seeking to perform better in comparison with others. In extrinsic form, they may develop as Social incentives that reflect the goal of affiliation and social solidarity with others, or as Extrinsic rewards in the form of monetary compensation or the symbolic counterparts of such rewards, including social recognition and approval from significant other persons. In addition, we extend the basic framework by adding a fifth Personal Incentive, the Health incentives associated with fitness (Duda and Tappe 1988), which connote such physical and mental benefits of exercise behavior as fitness, health, and stress reduction.

Sense of Self. Second, the Sense of Self component of Meaning comprises the constructs of Sense of competence, Goal-directedness, Self-reliance, and Social identity. Sense of competence reflects persons’ confidence in their abilities, their self-assessment of their status. Goal-directedness is their tendency to set goals and use them to organize activities. Self-reliance represents their perceived ability to proceed and succeed on their own by controlling the situation faced. Social identity connotes the interpersonal association persons make with other groups and their recognition of significant other persons.

Perceived Options. Third, the Perceived Options component of Meaning represents the perceived availability and acceptability of behavioral alternatives, the perceived existence of appropriate action possibilities. This component recognizes the negative aspects of available options as perceived Barriers (e.g., physical discomfort, role commitment) and the positive aspects as perceived Opportunities (e.g., available activity options).

Empirical findings using similar constructs support PIT’s contention that the elements of Meaning influence investment decisions. For example, consider the propensity of some persons to be attracted by the intrinsic rewards gained from immersion in a fitness-promotive task (i.e., Task incentives). Given acceptable empirical support for the effectiveness of Task incentives as a motivator, it is possible to confidently use this element of Meaning as a point of entry into potential participants’ cognitive structure. A motivational message can link recipients’ participation in an exercise program with the intrinsic benefits the program supplies. The other motivating elements of PIT are similarly rich in their potential for providing a point of access to recipients’ cognitive structure.

Antecedents to Meaning

PIT suggests that Antecedents to Meaning influence Personal Investment by acting indirectly through Meaning, although previous research has largely ignored these relationships.

Performance Situation. Performance Situation reflects the environment for behavioral choice in terms of two constructs, Social expectations and Task design. Social expectations recognizes that decision-makers are affected by their perception of what behavior is considered appropriate by others in their social group. Task design represents the concept that the inherent attractiveness and the degree of challenge in the behavior itself impact choices.

Personal Experiences. Second, the Personal Experiences component comprises the relevant set of perceptions and beliefs formed over a lifetime of previous experiences, a set of internal, traitlike cognitions. Thus, when persons derive Meaning in a decision situation, their own distinctive past helps create their very own set of incentives, idiosyncratic idea of self, and personal understanding of the behavioral alternatives that are appropriate.

Information. Third, Information features both personal and impersonal inputs, including mass media messages, that persons use as a basis for their Meaning. Numerous sources have associated use of information with fitness activities (Public Health Sevice 1991).

Age/Stage in Life and Socio-cultural Context. PIT holds that Age/Stage in Life affects Meaning. It also proposes that Socio-cultural Context impacts Meaning. Socio-cultural Context is the set of influences that come from one’s society and culture; it reflects the extent to which Meaning is differentially created in settings that can be characterized in terms of their socio-cultural content. To allow our constructs to be measured within the scope of one data collection effort, we joined the latter two constructs into a single, broader Demographics construct that includes age, gender, level of education, and marital status.

Behavior as Personal Investment

Personal Investment is the output (criterion) construct of PIT, the course of action a person chooses. To succinctly reflect the variety of choices that are relevant to motivating exercise, this study seeks to explain persons’ choice from four Exercise participation alternatives: to not participate, to participate in "pure" Exercise, in Sports, or in Both.


How will persons’ decisions regarding Exercise participation be affected by the motivators of PIT? With one exception, that of perceived Barriers, PIT holds the elements of Meaning to provide a positive influence on Personal Investment. For example, a stronger belief in one’s competence produces a greater magnitude of investment behavior (Maehr and Braskamp 1986). Thus, we expect:

H1:  Increases in the magnitudes of the various elements of Meaning, except for Barriers, will lead to greater Exercise Participation.

What type of activity will participants choose? Sports activities are notably competitive in nature (Spreitzer and Snyder 1983); they generally require interaction between at least two participants, which interjects a social aspect. Thus, compared with pure exercise, we expect higher Sports participation for persons who are more influenced by those constructs that represent competition and/or social interaction.

H2:  Sports participants, compared with pure exercisers, will be better characterized by the elements of PIT that reflect interest in competition and social relationships (i.e., Ego incentives, Social incentives, Extrinsic rewards, and Social identity).

To what extent do the Antecedents to Meaning help us understand the creation of the elements of Meaning? Previous research suggests a dichotomy in the orientations of participants (e.g., Gray-Lee and Granzin 1997); they emphasize either the exercise task or the company of other persons. The argument above suggests elements of Meaning will be consistent with corresponding Antecedents regarding a task or social orientation. Further, because many habits are formed early in life, participation in the past should generate consistent cognitive elements in current Meaning. Also, making an effort to learn about exercise options should contribute to forming cognitive elements that support participation.

H3:  Persons who enjoy exercise for itself rather than to meet the expectations of others, who have a habit of participation, and who have an interest in supportive information will find an attraction to the task and its mastery, will have a firmer commitment to the task and a self-perception that is consistent with this rientation, and will more easily find a way to participate. Demographics will link with elements of Meaning, but with a sense to be determined.


To demonstrate the usefulness of PIT for understanding exercise participation and to provide empirical evidence to guide the use of PIT, we conducted the study described below.

Data Collection

We collected survey data from a sample of 248 adult residents of a metropolitan area who were approached in their homes and in public places. They were selected to match the characteristics of the sample to the local population with respect to twelve age-and-gender categories reported in the most recent census of the area. Trained interviewers were assigned to the various sections of the area to ensure diverse socio-economic characteristics of respondents. Not all respondents provided complete, usable data appropriate for analysis.


Exercise participation was operationalized categorically as involving (1) no participation (2) participation in sports at least partly for fitness reasons, (3) participation in pure exercise rather than sports, or (4) participation in both sports and pure exercise. Each of the fifteen constructs of Meaning and Antecedents to Meaning involving perceptions and beliefs was operationalized using a 6-point Likert scale. The 69 items were formed by adapting to the context of fitness various operational measures reported in the behavioral literature (Duda and Tappe 1988; Maehr and Braskamp 1986). Some items were reversed to reduce pattern responses. Reliability analysis was used to discard items that degraded the quality of measurement and the remaining items were averaged to produce a single, composite variable. Demographics were measured using standard open-ended and forced-choice items.


We used discriminant analysis, supplemented by one-way ANOVA’s, to investigate H1 and H2. Non-responses meant 213 respondents provided usable data for the discriminant analysis: 73 Non-participants, 22 Sports participants at least partly for exercise, 71 pure Exercisers, and 47 Both participants. We used canonical correlation analysis to investigate H3; 208 respondents provided usable data. For both analyses, we considered canonical loadings having an absolute value of .30 or greater to denote the variables that made an important contribution to the variate in question (Hair et al. 1992).


Participation in Exercise

Table 1 presents the results of the discriminant analysis used to investigate the proposed relationship between Exercise Participation and Meaning. The first two discriminant functions were significant at p=.000 and p=.006, respectively. Eight of the eleven motivators load at least .30 on the first canonical variate, in decreasing order of magnitude: Task incentives, Competence, Opportunities, (absence of) Barriers, Self-reliance, Ego incentives, Social identity, and Health incentives. In sum, this first canonical variate reflects a confident, self-motivated task orientation; i.e., finding the task itself to be inherently involving and enjoyable and feeling capable to accomplish the task. The centroid for the Both participants stands highest on the variate, followed by the centroids for Pure exercisers, Sports participants, and Non-particiants. Therefore, this first variate distinguishes Pure exercisers from persons who do not exercise.



Three constructs make important contributions to the second function: Social incentives, Ego incentives, and (absence of) Goal-directedness. This second variate portrays a social orientation toward exercise (i.e., wanting to be involved with other persons), while wanting to do well without setting goals for achievement. The centroid for the Sports participants stands highest on this second variate, followed by the centroids for the Both participants, the Non-exercisers, and the Pure exercisers. For the most part, this second variate distinguishes Sports participants from persons who do not engage in sports.

Table 1 also presents results from the ANOVA’s, which show that all constructs but Extrinsic rewards significantly (p<.05) distinguish among the groupings. For the most part, the Both grouping stands highest on the set of motivators and the Non-participant grouping stands lowest. This finding indicates the elements of Meaning more strongly motivate persons to exercise using both formats rather than just one (only either pure exercising or sports participation). However, Sports participants stand highest on Social incentives and Barriers, and Pure exercisers stand highest on Health incentives and Goal-directedness. It appears pure exercise better satisfies fitness needs and sports better satisfies social needs.

How well have the three components of PIT performed in ANOVAs? The composite picture indicates Pure exercisers are best characterized using the Sense of Self constructs. They see themselves as focused on the exercise task which they are confident they can accomplish. In addition, they are motivated by good health and they perceive opportunities, rather than barriers, to participation. Sense of self also describes the Both participants. However, the two internal Personal incentives (Task and Ego incentives) and Health incentives are strong motivators for this grouping. Personal incentives work well with the Sports participants, who respond to Social incentives and Ego incentives (reflecting competition with others). A Perceived Barriers, limits their participation perhaps because many sports require relatively scarce and/or elaborate venues. Not surprisingly, the Barriers option also constrains the Non-participants, while almost all of the other motivators influence them in a negative fashion.

In sum, these results indicate that all motivators but Extrinsic rewards contribute to either the multivariate or the univariate analyses. The findings indicate that Pure exercisers are more involved in "working out," while the Sports participants prefer to "play" sports. Not surprisingly, the Both participants are a composite of these two groupings.

Relationship between Meaning and Antecedents to Meaning

Table 2 presents the results of the canonical correlation analysis used to investigate the relationship between the elements of Meaning and the Antecedents to Meaning. Three roots were significant at p=.000 and a fourth at p=.025. All elements of Meaning and all Antecedents except Marital status enter into at least one significant root at the .309 level of importance.

The first root portrays Meaning in terms of Task incentives, Competence, Social identity, (absence of) Barriers, Opportunities, Health incentives, and Goal-directness. This Meaning variate reflects a focused, confident, determined approach to maintaining/improving fitness, a "can-do" attitude. The Antecedents variate reflects Task design, Information, and Personal experiences; i.e., enjoyment of exercise that is based on long-term participation and is involving enough to stimulate communication with others. In short, this first root associates a current commitment to exercise with a history of broad-based involvement.

The second root characterizes Meaning in terms of Extrinsic rewards, Social incentives, (lack of) Self-reliance, perceived Barriers, Ego incentives, and (lack of) Opportunities. This variatedescribes Meaning that emphasizes a need for appreciation from and an attachment to external sources, augmented by the perception of limited options for participation. The Antecedents variate reflects Social expectations and younger Age; in short, youthful social pressure. Concisely, this second root describes an externally-directed orientation toward exercise, as opposed to an internally-based motivation.



The third root has a Meaning variate based on heightened Competence, but diminished Goal-directedness, Social identity, and Health incentives; it seemingly represents confident detachment. The Antecedents variate reflects younger Age, lowered use of Information, and male Gender, which portrays a lowered scope of involvement for young men. In sum, the orientation seems to be "I could do it if I wanted to" (but I may not want to).

The fourth root has a Meaning variate defined by Opportunities, Ego incentives, (lack of) Barriers, Social identity, and (lack of) Goal-directedness. This variate represents willingness and ability to accept an fitness-promotive challenge. The Antecedents variate is defined by male Gender, older Age, stronger Personal experiences, a smaller household, and lesser Education, which connotes continuing, habitual participation by older men. This root describes a mature, competitive, easily-served involvement.


This study exposits PIT and demonstrates its value as a conceptual framework for selecting motivators that will stimulate participation in fitness activities. The empirical evidence shows the motivator constructs of PIT influence fitness-promotive behavior as well as link with one another as proposed by Maehr and Braskamp. That is, the findings show that the elements of Meaning (excepting Extrinsic rewards) influence exercise behavior and that the Antecedents to Meaning (excepting Marital status) enhance our understanding of the elements of Meaning. In short, the data indicate PIT is a broad-based conceptual framework for understanding how to motivate fitness-promotive behavior.

Regarding the Meaning segment, its three components (Personal Incentives, Sense of Self, and Perceived Options) contribute generally equally to explaining Exercise participation. Regarding the Antecedents segment, while the non-Demographic elements make a somewhat greater contribution to understanding Meaning, all elements are helpful. Therefore, this single study indicates it is worthwhile to consider all components of PIT when trying to understand how Meaning motivates exercise participation and its Antecedents lead to the creation of this Meaning; i.e., it seems useful to consider both Meaning and its Antecedents when seeking to understand the forces that lead to participation.

While it appears that all PIT constructs have potential relevance to users, for some applications, parsimony may be important. The empirical findings indicate the Meaning constructs taken alone provide a viable "kernel" of motivators. Nonetheless, it seems best to avoid using too parsimonious a set of constructs for fear of losing the richness of explanation that resides in PIT as a whole.


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