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Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2012 Feb 21;9:16. doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-9-16.

Autonomy supportive environments and mastery as basic factors to motivate physical activity in children: a controlled laboratory study.

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  • 1Department of Pediatrics, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York 14214-3000, USA.



Choice promotes the experience of autonomy, which enhances intrinsic motivation. Providing a greater choice of traditional active toys may increase children's activity time. Mastery also increases intrinsic motivation and is designed into exergames, which may increase play time of a single exergame, reducing the need for choice to motivate activity compared to traditional active toys. Providing both choice and mastery could be most efficacious at increasing activity time. The energy expenditure (EE) of an active play session is dependent on the duration of play and the rate of EE during play. The rate of EE of exergames and the same game played in traditional fashion is not known. The purpose was to test the basic parameters of choice and mastery on children's physical activity time, activity intensity, and energy expenditure.


44 children were assigned to low (1 toy) or high (3 toys) choice groups. Children completed 60 min sessions with access to traditional active toys on one visit and exergame versions of the same active toys on another visit.


Choice had a greater effect on increasing girls' (146%) than boys' (23%) activity time and on girls' (230%) than boys' (minus 24%) activity intensity. When provided choice, girls' activity time and intensity were no longer lower than boys' activity time and intensity. The combination of choice and mastery by providing access to 3 exergames produced greater increases in physical activity time (1 toy 22.5 min, 3 toys 41.4 min) than choice alone via access to 3 traditional games (1 toy 13.6 min, 3 toys 19.5 min). Energy expenditure was 83% greater when engaging in traditional games than exergames.


Boys and girls differ in their behavioral responses to autonomy supportive environments. By providing girls with greater autonomy they can be motivated to engage in physical activity equal to boys. An environment that provides both autonomy and mastery is most efficacious at increasing physical activity time. Though children play exergames 87% longer than traditional games, the rate of energy expenditure is 83% lower for exergames than traditional indoor versions of the same games.

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