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Research shows that all humans have three basic psychological needs that help lead an overall healthy life. It's just as important for your health to meet these needs as exercise is. The best news it that you can meet all three needs at your local gym!

Dan John says,

“If you are spending so much time at the gym that your mail is forwarded there, you’re not dedicated – you’ve got a mental disorder.”

Funny as he is, he is actually way off the mark. Every human has three basic psychological needs according to Self-determination Theory: autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and the gym is the place that can fill all three of those needs. And filling those needs actually staves off mental disorders!

Self-Determination Is Interconnected With Exercise

In life we all seek personal satisfaction, and satisfaction is a direct result of fulfilling psychological needs. Researchers Deci and Ryan (2000) stated,

“Basic psychological needs are defined as essential nutrients for a person’s growth, integrity, and well-being.”

How does this relate to your daily gym routine?

The gym is an outlet for autonomy, or the freedom from external control. It is a place that fulfills the need for competence, or the ability to do something efficiently and successfully, and the gym is a place to find relatedness, or the feeling of being socially connected and associated.

Let’s look at each in more detail.

Autonomy: Freedom of Choice

“My gym time is my ‘me’ time. I put my headphones on and do my own thing!”


“What are you working on today?” is one of the most common questions that weightlifters are asked by other weightlifters when they show up to the gym. If all the benches for bench press are full, you may decide it’s not chest day, it is shoulders day. The point is that the decision is all yours.

Sicilia et al. (2014) states,

“Within the exercise context, autonomy refers to the need to perform activities that are interesting, and being able to choose and to participate in the decision-making process.”

 You have the freedom to complete any form of exercise you wish, and due to that freedom your autonomy level is higher. Gyms are equipped with cardio equipment, free weights, machines, classes, virtual classes, and daycare centers all which give you the leeway to exercise freely. The more you like the exercises you are partaking in, the more likely you are to return to the gym and maintain the healthy habit.

Unless you hire a trainer to instruct you on what to do, which is still by your own choice, there is no list of demands placed upon you except self-inflicted ones. Even if you do hire a trainer, you could ask for choice in the types of exercises you will perform. You can lift weights or complete bodyweight exercise. You can run on a treadmill or get your cardio from a step mill.

Hiring a trainer should not be like high school PE when you are told what to do. You are paying the trainer to learn exercises that you would like to carry out on your own in the future. They are providing you a learning service. If you don’t like the choices your trainer is providing, your autonomy level might decrease causing you to not want to go to the gym, which is not the self-fulfilling reason you started.

The point is that you should find an activity that you truly love to do and that you find satisfying. If free weights aren’t your forte, you can do Zumba or other group classes, play racquetball or basketball, or swim. No matter what exercise you choose for the day, you will be fulfilled knowing that the choice was yours to make.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000, November 19). The "What" and "Why" of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Retrieved September 28, 2016, from
  • Sicilia, A., Saenz-Alvarez, P., Gonzalez-Cutre, D., & Ferriz21, R. (2014, January 21). Psychologica Belgica. Retrieved September 28, 2016, from
  • Yang, Y. C., Boen, C., Gerken, K., Li, T., Schorpp, K., & Harris, K. M. (2015, July 20). Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Retrieved September 28, 2016, from
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