Using self-determination theory and the social identity approach to understand physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Meredith Marie Schertzinger

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


The aim of the PhD was to utilise Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and the Social Identity Approach (SIA) to understand individuals’ physical activity behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the theoretical tenets of SDT and SIA, an individual who is part of a physical activity environment in which they perceive a shared group identity and feel supported in their psychological needs, in time, will internalise and value routine physical activity. Governmental restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic prevented group physical activity, disrupting pre-pandemic physical activity habits. Study 1, a cross-sectional survey, analysed the behavioural change in running habits during COVID-19 restrictions and found that SDT and SIA variables supported runners’ physical activity and mental well-being. Before the pandemic, there was limited research on the association of SDT and SIA variables in an online exercise setting. Study 2, a cross-sectional survey of online exercise participants, found that the exercise class leader could be just as effective online as in person. In addition, leaders’ ability to create a group identity indirectly improved participants’ class effort, enjoyment, and attendance. Finally, studies 3 and 4 experimentally manipulated a leader’s use of identity entrepreneurship (crafting of ‘we-ness’) to examine the causal impact this had on participants’ online exercise class experiences. The experimental manipulation was successful, and identity entrepreneurship significantly indirectly affected participants’ class experiences. This research expands SIA leadership research by showing that online exercise leaders’ ability to establish and maintain a group identity improves their participants’ class experiences. Beyond the pandemic, this research demonstrated that SDT and SIA variables could be used to understand how individuals will respond and adapt to sudden changes in physical group memberships and normative physical activity routines.
Date of Award16 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorFergus Gilmour Neville (Supervisor), Gozde Ozakinci (Supervisor) & Andrew James Williams (Supervisor)


  • Social identity approach
  • Self-determination theory
  • Physical activity
  • COVID-19

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 10 April 2026

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