Motivating Participants

People act and react in unique ways to different situations. How can you make your program environment one that allows people to be themselves and yet motivates them enough to try new activities or pick up forgotten activities? Changing behaviour starts with the first few steps as people become more comfortable with the activity and the people around them.

Motivating participants to join your physical activity program is about providing a springboard to help those who are only at the “thinking about it” stage to actually dive in and start doing it. For some, moving from contemplation to action will involve educating them about the physical and mental health benefits of being active. You might begin by inviting them to watch a group activity and ask questions, or provide an information session. Some people may lack self-confidence or have trouble seeing themselves as someone who is capable of participating in the activity. It is essential to provide encouragement and support to get a new participant to try… and try again.

Following are a few ideas to motivate participants and clients to move more often.

Discover what motivates each individual

The underlying benefits of physical activity can be unexpected. Keep an open mind to allow participants to come up with their own reasons for change. At the Gerstein Centre, their participant survey revealed that people were motivated by the fact that through the program, physical activity made them feel great (as opposed to improving their fitness level).

What seemed to work best was to find out the things they actually like to do and then repeat them. At this point, I have put hula hoops on every month because I know it works. I can get a wide range of people into that. I would think that if they were doing — whatever it was — the more often they do it, the better they get at it, the better they feel about themselves and then it’s a self-fulfilling cycle.” (Assistant program manager)

The evaluation of one of the pilots showed that “a peer or staff leader needs to be paying close attention to the physical and emotional needs of participants during the program to ensure such things as over-exertion, embarrassment, or anxiety do not cloud the experience. ‘You have to be alert and aware of what’s happening to the participants at all times, including their emotional needs; you have to be in tune with your participants.’” (Staff leader)

Learn to see your group’s key moments for positive reinforcement. Celebrate milestones.

  • Before the program – spread the word with encouragement and ears open to any barriers;
  • At the start of a program – appreciate their efforts to attend;
  • During – keep up the spirit by being encouraging when you see some struggling through;
  • After – keep them coming back and listen to any feedback they may have

Over the course of the program, where can you add incentives and variety to perk up the group and keep them going? How can you encourage peers to encourage each other?

Use frequent reminders

Continue reminding people to join in. Phone calls the day before a program can be useful, if the client has a phone. For those without a phone, consider handing out “frequent flyer” cards, which can be used to collect points for each visit and then be redeemed for prizes (for example, their 10th visit might earn them a T-shirt). Send an e-card (see the resource directory for examples), send one by snail mail, or hand one out at the end of a class. The card can be a reminder to stay active, a "miss you" message when attendance is poor, or a congratulations when goals have been achieved.

I find, with me and my illness, if I leave it to myself, I tend to be sedentary. On the Boundless trips we’re constantly being invited to join in. In my daily life I have to do the same thing. I find that overcoming these mental obstacles, these resistances to action is a problem. I always wonder what the resistance was about once I get into something.” (Participant, FRESH program at Gerstein on Bloor)

Ensure that the program is promoted and that reminders include essential elements such as proper attire for outdoor activities and adequate water.

They keep a nice big bulletin board downstairs... They have pictures of the whole team there; they have a calendar of activities and different themes, so it’s a visual. I’m thinking that, as things progress, they might come out and try something. It’s all about opportunities and the right time and right place.” (Participant)
Word of mouth may be one of the most effective ways to get people to join in. People like to hear it from other people.

Focus on collaborative spirit over competitive gain

Camaraderie and social connections play the strongest role in motivating participants. Even if individuals are strangers at the start of a program, sharing an activity can promote bonding among participants and foster supportive networks. Peer companionship can reduce anxiety when travelling to and from an activity. Friendships can continue beyond the program.

While friendly competition may be a natural element of many sporting activities, you can reduce stress by taking a more collaborative approach. In the Wii Move! Program at Sunnybrook, program leaders helped to make the Wii activity games non-competitive by consolidating scores and making it a cooperative team game.

For other ideas about cooperative goal-setting see Reward Fitness Miles.

Sprinkle activity breaks into other settings

Is there a way to break up all the sitting that happens at educational sessions? Use physical activity as an icebreaker at the beginning a meeting, or end with a short walk around the building or in the neighbourhood on a nice day. During the educational session, encourage people to stand up for a stretch and to change seats. Movement will help to freshen their concentration.

Be aware of how participants respond to your messaging. You may find that fewer people participate if you say that an activity is required, rather than voluntary. In their “Take the Extra Step” program, Community Resource Connections of Toronto and South Riverdale Community Health Centre found that more people joined in for the group walk following WRAP sessions when the message changed from ”must do” to “please join us.”

Make small changes in the daily routine

Promoting behaviour change towards a more active lifestyle can go beyond the structured activities offered through programs. Encourage clients to be more active at home. If they watch TV, suggest moving around during the commercial breaks. Explore other healthy habits that can be incorporated into their daily routine.

Keep a regular program schedule

Clients have pointed out that having a routine with the activities can make it easier for them to remember to participate. Find a time that works for participants — morning starts may be too early for some. Consider ways to fit the programmed activity into your clients’ regular routines. Keep clients motivated by reducing potential barriers such as scheduling conflicts. 

Provide choices

Differences in age, interests and abilities may mean that certain activities will be more attractive to some than to others. Offer a variety of activities and let participants tell you what they’re most interested in doing. Give participants the opportunity to try new things and discover what they like and don’t like. “It was good that there were different sports. If somebody didn’t have an interest in baseball, the next week we played horseshoes. It was still the same day and the same time but the topic/activity varied.” (Participant, CMHA Thunder Bay)

“...we do have such a huge diversity of age, from 16–80+. We’ve got a diversity of physical capacity for people who are literally dependent on walkers to our younger guys — most of them are males — who are more robust and who will use the Wii every time they’re in. I think, structurally in both programs, that’s our huge first challenge.... Many people have gotten to that point of “why bother?” I’m already overweight, or I already have this, or I’ve got this health problem... why bother? I think a lot of that “talk” stuff that we’re still doing with a lot of people is trying to bring people to that realization that every little bit helps.” (Program Manager, Haldimand-Norfolk Resource Centre)

Outings can demystify physical activity environments for those looking for opportunities in the community. Some people may prefer this over a peer-only environment. Others may need some support with transportation. CMHA Thunder Bay staff rode the bus to orient participants to the program location.

There may be a difference in preferred size of the group: “I think that the people who chose the one-on-one sessions wanted a little bit more than physical activity. They wanted the comfort level of having another person with them. That was a lot more important. I think the people who chose the group were less inclined to have the comfort level with one person but felt more comfortable in a group. That would probably lessen the intimidation for them.” (FRESH program worker, Gerstein on Bloor)

Provide opportunities for people to re-join the program whenever they’re ready. Most people are more willing to join when they have someone to join with them. “…the ones that were sitting around doing nothing got sick and tired of sitting and doing nothing. They realized that those people were having fun and they’re socializing and getting out. They’re not sitting around bitching and whining any more, they’re having something, and they’re noticing they’re losing weight.” (Participant)

Be consistent

Programs need to be consistent for people to follow them and to encourage healthy habits. Whether there is one participant or many, the program should always run. Although you may feel at first glance that low attendance is a program shortcoming, having a smaller group will allow you to pay more attention to individual participants. This level of support can pay dividends in the long run, especially for clients who face a steeper learning curve or need more encouragement to stick with an activity.

Plan ahead to help avoid disruptions and keep up the program momentum. Weather, for example, can sometimes present an obstacle for group outings. While promoting the activity, remind participants to wear proper attire. Be prepared, especially on hot days, by bringing extra water. Plan an indoor activity as a back-up option when the weather is bad.

An occasional absence by your program leader may be unavoidable, but breaking the pattern of activities can have a negative impact on participants’ motivation to attend. Rather than cancel activities, try to have a back-up instructor available, or perhaps a peer leader or volunteer who can step in. Perhaps an alternate activity can be planned in advance to prepare for unexpected absences. Make sure someone else in the organization is available as a resource, someone who knows the back-up plan and can help manage any last-minute changes.

Take time to evaluate your program

If you find that attendance is consistently low, it may be worth pausing to identify possible barriers to participation. Even if your program is going well, an evaluation will help you understand what elements are coming together to make your program work.
See Measuring Your Success for more information about program evaluation.