Study: True health gains must be internally motivated

By Kyla Emme, College of Education intern

anne-cox-head-shotPULLMAN, Wash. – Recent research by associate sport science professor Anne Cox shows that when participants are mindfully engaged during yoga, their motivation for physical activity becomes more internal and less about external appearance and what others will think – also known as Social Physique Anxiety (SPA).

“It doesn’t matter if people are actually judging your body, it’s just the concern that they are,” Cox said, adding that SPA “feels like other kinds of anxiety” and is a recognized societal health issue.

Her study can be found at

WSU researcher Anne Cox.

Cox followed 148 participants from six yoga classes that met 2-3 times a week across an eight-week period at Washington State University. Most study subjects were female. Cox and her team found that participants experienced “decreased self-objectification and more internal reasons for exercise over time.”

When a person is in touch with their body, they begin to feel what they need instead of basing their “needs” off of external ideals, she said.

Xavier Henderson, a 28-year-old senior at WSU, agrees. Though he grew up in an active household, he got to a point a few years ago where he weighed 360 pounds. He was interested in getting into the military, so he used that as a motivator to go to the gym and achieve military physical standards.

Cox said that Henderson’s motivation to improve the way he felt and moved was more productive than motivation to change the way he looked.

He began to attend a small mixed martial arts gym. It helped him get into the feel of working out until he was ready to move up and start lifting weights and toning. He used the people he exercised with to help push himself forward.

“This guy who I really started working with told me I had something worth fighting for,” Henderson said. “And I’ve never had someone believe in me like that before.”

According to Cox, this encouragement to take care of their bodies is what people need, rather than motivation to drop pounds or achieve a perfect physique.

“Happiness comes to you when it comes from you,” Henderson said. “We can’t be like models and other bodies we idolize. We have to be happy with ourselves.”

Cox’s research is in keeping with WSU’s Grand Challenges, a suite of research initiatives aimed at large societal issues. It is particularly relevant to the challenge of sustaining health.