Kinesiology class connects motivation and exercise through research

In David Conroy’s "Motivation and Emotion in Movement" class, undergraduate students get a unique perspective on research by being participants in their own experiments. Conroy, an associate professor of kinesiology at Penn State, is in charge of what he calls a kinesiology lab that focuses on psychology, where he studies the intersection of emotion, motivation and physical activity levels. He studies people of all ages and physical activity levels, which not only means that students are suitable research subjects, but that his research is accessible -- and interesting -- to many of his classes, particularly for students who want to pursue a career in wellness or fitness.

Conroy’s KINES 428 class takes a multi-angled approach to understanding the connection between motivation and exercise, and this turns out to be a very “eye-opening” experience, according to Katie Balcerzak, a kinesiology student. “It was a very insightful class,” she said. “We learned about ourselves and our classmates, and how to better motivate ourselves and others.”

Students wear pedometers during their waking hours for four weeks straight and also log the daily motivations and emotions they experienced through an online questionnaire. Additionally, students gain insight into their automatic inclinations toward exercise by taking a timed reaction test that Conroy and his colleagues developed. In this test, students are presented with a word on a computer screen (for example, “running”) and respond as quickly as possible with whether they think the word is good or bad. Their response times will provide a fairly good indicator of how they unconsciously feel toward physical activity.

Rather than using a textbook, Conroy’s students read peer-reviewed journal articles on the variety of topics covered in class, from anger, happiness and sadness to different theories of motivation. This gives students a chance to see what other current research exists in these areas and a chance to test the validity of existing theories against data they’ve collected in class.

Students are able to see how their physical activity levels compared to the standards or expectations; many organizations and clinicians recommend that a person get 10,000 steps in a given day, but students in class -- who thought they were generally very active -- averaged only 7,000. They also had the opportunity to see how the class’ motivations rise and fall throughout the semester; for example, students saw a sharp drop in intention to exercise right before spring break followed by a quick rise the week after.

“Dr. Conroy really made it known how important this research is,” said Balcerzak. “If you don’t know why someone is motivated, there is no way you can focus in on that to motivate others.”

The perspective gained on this type of research is something that will stick with students whether or not they plan on being scientists one day. Tatiana Grezeszak, another kinesiology student in Conroy’s class, said that learning about motivation and emotions and how they tie in to physical activity is something that will benefit her down the line.

“I don’t know what field I’ll be going into yet, but I know that I’ll be able to apply what I learned in this class,” she said.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010