This study investigated the relationship between exercise motivation, PA, and PF among college students through a cross-sectional design using a structural equation model. The results of this study showed a significant positive correlation between exercise motivation, PA and PF in college students. Students’ exercise motivation may influence PF directly or indirectly by mediating the effect of PA. This study can prove that greater exercise motivation and better participation in PA can improve PF status. This study is an extension and application of the STD-based theory of exercise motivation.
Extension and application of the STD-based theory of exercise motivation
One of the fundamental goals of the STD theory of exercise motivation is to stimulate and encourage more people to participate in PA (23). The results of this study confirm the hypothesis H1-H4 of this study, exercise motivation can significantly predict exercise behavior, suggesting that the amount of PA can be increased by increasing exercise motivation among college students, followed by an increase in PF. STD consists of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. This study found that men and women have different motivations to engage in PA and that different dimensions of exercise motivation have different effects on PF. Our study is an extension and application of the STD-based theory of exercise motivation.
Gender differences in various dimensions of exercise motivation among college students
The results of the descriptive analysis of the different dimensions of the results of the motivation to exercise showed that the greatest intensity of motivation for exercising among students was health motivation, followed by appearance motivation, entertainment motivation, competence motivation and social motivation. This showed that the students’ primary motivation for participating in PA was to maintain physical health, which is similar to a previous study (24). The lowest intensity of social motivation suggested that students largely do not participate in PA for social reasons. In comparison, students’ extrinsic motivation to participate in PA was stronger than intrinsic motivation. A possible reason for this is that highly autonomous intrinsic motivation is more capable of controlling one’s own behavior to achieve good results compared to extrinsic motivation (14). In addition, men show stronger exercise motivation to participate in PA compared to women, and a study comparing the exercise motivations of male and female Mexican students participating in PA also confirms this (25). Of the five dimensions of exercise motivation, men have a higher mean score than women in health motivation, fun motivation, competence motivation, and social motivation, and women have a higher mean score than men only in appearance motivation. It may suggest that women are more motivated by extrinsic factors to engage in PA, such as weight control and improved appearance, while men are more motivated by intrinsic factors to engage in PA, such as power competition and challenges (16, 26, 27). This suggests that the gender variable should be taken into account when designing an intervention to enhance motivation to exercise.
The levels of PF students were far from an excellent standard, with females outnumbering males overall
The average PF score (M = 72.51) of the students in this study was far from the excellent Chinese national standard (≥ 90), indicating that their level of PF needs to be further improved, which reminds us to pay attention to the strengthening of PF for students. Therefore, we suggest that universities should actively implement health promotion activities to promote university students’ exercise motivation and improve their PF. In addition, the research showed that there are differences between women and men in relation to the weekly number of hours of exercise and physical condition, which is higher in men (28). However, we found an interesting phenomenon that men had higher mean PA scores than women but lower PF scores than women, which is different from previous studies. We speculate that this could be due to the fact that women have better nutritional and lifestyle habits, which can have a positive effect on PF, as shown in previous studies (29).
The effects of exercise motivation on college students’ PF are related to the dimensions of exercise motivation
Results of hierarchical multiple regression analysis revealed that five dimensions of exercise motivation (health, appearance, fun, competence, and social) differentially predicted PF in college students after controlling for gender, age, grade, and PA. Our research confirmed that exercise motivation predicts PF. However, appearance motivation and social motivation are negative predictors of PF. It is possible that appearance motivation and social motivation can also lead to anxiety, stress and even depression when people lack social status and recognition due to their appearance, often causing a person to stop exercising (30, 31). In contrast, among the five dimensions of exercise motivation, health motivation and competence motivation were significant positive predictors of PF. Exercise motivation, such as enjoyment of healthy exercise, sense of competence, has been reported to have a positive effect on exercise endurance (32), which is an important indicator of PF. In addition, health motivation increased identified regulation and was positively associated with exercise participation, which also promotes PF (33).
This study has some practical applications worth noting. In order to improve PF, we must take into account that the university can take measures to promote exercise motivation (especially for health motivation and competence motivation) of students. Our study suggests that not only gender, but also dimensions of exercise motivation should be considered when designing interventions to increase exercise motivation to improve PA and PF.
First, our research is cross-sectional, so causal conclusions cannot be established. In the future, we should design longitudinal data collection strategies and methods based on this research, and analyze the strength and direction of the causal relationship between exercise motivation, PA, and PF. Second, this study was conducted on students at two universities only, and we hope that the sample population can be expanded in the future for a comprehensive study. Finally, this study lacks data on important factors such as diet and sleep. These factors are associated with PF and will be collected in our future studies.