Why Work Out? How Exercise Motivation Differs for Older & Younger Adults

Prior research has suggested that as people age, motivations change from being focused on future-oriented goals to present-oriented, emotionally meaningful goals, such as maintaining social bonds. A recent focus group study looked at whether these changes also applied to motivation for exercise by comparing the exercise motivations of younger and older adults. The discussion centered around three themes: meaningful others, self-focus, and peripheral others.

Discussion of meaningful others centered around how family and friends impacted exercise motivations. While both younger and older adults discussed the motivational benefits of meaningful others, the way in which meaningful others affected motivation differed. For older adults, the comradery and social enjoyment of exercising with others was a more meaningful factor. One of the costs mentioned by older adults for not exercising was the negative social and emotional impact. Older adults also viewed exercise as a way to make new meaningful connections. Younger adults instead mentioned the roles played by meaningful others in helping achieve exercise goals through helping with initiating exercise, accountability, and support such as advice.

Self-focus was a much more prominent motivational theme for younger adults, whose preference to work out alone stemmed from a desire for “me time” or for the freedom to exercise as they pleased. Older adults mentioned a desire to work out alone much less often, and often worked out alone due to a lack of regular access to exercise partners.

Discussion of peripheral others centered on the role of strangers and acquaintances when exercising in social contexts. Both groups discussed instrumental benefits such as competition, accountability, and “energy” that come from exercising in social contexts to a similar degree. However, many more older adults mentioned the social benefits of exercising around even those individuals they did not know well. Younger and older adults also differed in their perceptions of the social evaluation of these peripheral others. Concern with how others were evaluating them was common among younger adults. On the other hand, older adults instead reported being motivated by the positive evaluations and complements of others.



Steltenpohl CN, Shuster M, Peist E, et al. Me time, or we time? Age differences in motivation for exercise. The Gerontologist. (2018). DOI: 10.1093/geront/gny038

Self-Fulfilling ProphecyHow Perceptions of Aging Affect Our Later Years

Learn how older adults’ perceptions of aging—and their self-perceptions—can have serious effects on their health, behaviors, and even longevity.

Download FREE Copy

    Add insight to your inbox

    Join our email list to receive information about the latest research from Mather Institute. Just complete the form below to subscribe.

    Thank you!

    You are now subscribed to the email list.
    A confirmation has been sent to the email you provided.

    Continue to Website Share with a Friend