I think we all know people who have for the most part enjoyed exercising throughout their entire lives. They played sports from a young age. They were always on the move as kids – running farther, biking faster, climbing higher, competing harder. On the flip side, there are those who have had to push themselves more motivation-wise in the fitness department. The same degree of activity didn’t appeal from an early age, even all things being equal in living circumstances. How many of us, for instance, know siblings who span the entire spectrum of fitness orientation? What happens not just in childhood but in adulthood when the draw of physical activity isn’t just play but health and longevity. What personalities tend to work out more? Who enjoys it more? And what are the means we can explore to make exercise a more appealing personal endeavor if we’re not among the more naturally gung-ho?
The research on fitness and personality reveals some interesting dimensions. Much of the research revolves around the so-called “big 5” personality traits (conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness to experience) as a means of analyzing what exercise choices and behaviors work best for individual people. For example, the more conscientious you are, the more likely you are to exercise regularly. Wherever you fall on that particular scale, logistical choices that support your consistent practice are obviously important. You know how much structure you need.
If you’re extroverted, obviously relying on your own willpower to go it alone for that daily run at 5:30 every morning probably isn’t going to cut it. If you score high on the “open to new experience” trait, novelty should clearly be a priority. If you tend toward the neurotic (not that there’s anything wrong with that), you might consider that regular exercise can balance out your emotional landscape (e.g. anxiety) in positive ways. Convincing yourself to make working out a daily habit might revolve more around recognizing the mental health benefits than the physical. Agreeableness/aggression, for what it’s worth, didn’t appear to influence exercise behavior.
Interestingly, in one study the “neuroticism” trait and its assigned opposite – resilience – showed the most influence on fitness – not just in terms of engagement but performance. The more “resilient” (emotionally flexible) of the 642 participants had a greater aerobic capacity. While the findings don’t reveal a cause and effect relationship, it introduces the question of whether our emotional resilience encourages us to develop our physical capacity or (alternatively) if physical fitness breeds psychological balance. (From a hormonal perspective, I think there’s more evidence for the second.)
While the research might suggest that certain traits make exercise overall a more appealing choice for some people, I think it’s important to not run too far with the idea that certain personalities tend to embrace fitness more or might (in some studies) perform better along given physical measures. Research shows the social environment, for example, significantly influences both adolescents’ and adults’ experience during exercise. When an activity supports a person’s sense of competence, autonomy and relatedness, these studies show, he or she is likely to enjoy it more and feel more motivated. Too often, however, our past experiences around formal “exercise” cut this fulfillment off at the pass. I wonder, in particular, how much of the introvert/extrovert exercise performance or enjoyment discrepancy could be ameliorated by these conditions.
Likewise, any of us can enhance our emotional resilience, whatever our innate “profile” might predispose us to. While we may not be able to shift our introversion/extroversion set points much, I’d venture to say most introverts (certainly those I know and love) say context matters a great deal.
The fact is, there’s much more at work for most of us than a clinically defined psychological trait.
By the time we’re adults, we’ve amassed a significant layering of experiences that definitely color our perception of “exercise” and whether we consider it our bag. Everyone from our parents to middle school gym teachers, extracurricular coaches and (of course) our peers at one point or another transferred their messages about our competence and skill – whether we were “cut out” for fitness or not. Additionally, we decided on some level whether we belonged in the social circles that revolved around athletics or other physical activity. We looked at what was available and considered “exercise” to decide how much interest we had. Maybe we found the options lacking and learned to identify ourselves with other endeavors.
For some of us who weren’t athletes in the formal sense, we were lucky enough to have found a solitary or otherwise alternative means to be active outside of the school-focused extracurricular realm. Maybe we practiced a martial art or dance. Perhaps we were nature buffs and still spent as much time outdoors during our teenage/twenties years as we did as children. Maybe we were bike commuters to jobs or school.
Sometimes it was a matter of practicing an activity that served a given need and more or less stuck with it. It might have boiled down to economics or logistics (e.g. bike commuting, physical labor occupation). Over time, however, I think we come to identify ourselves with our activities (and activity levels) regardless of our original intention behind them. Our fitness levels become less about whether we perceive ourselves to be a “type” and more about how an activity serves a purpose in our practical lives. In a sedentary, car-oriented culture, this is harder to come by these days.
For others of us, however, we found an activity that fit a personal interest. Perhaps we found our way there through social means (e.g. joining friends who enjoyed anything from Ultimate). In other cases, we discovered individual gratification from a solitary pursuit. Maybe an evening bike ride or weekend hike regularly provided a kind of needed therapy through a difficult time. Perhaps we learned that we could experience simple joy through ice skating or swimming laps or caving.
Whatever the case, we forged an investment of one kind of another in an activity and came to see it as part of how we live our everyday life and self-care. This, I believe, is a more potent and sustainable motivator than guilt. Health is one of the few things in life for which the end almost always justifies the means, but why accept obligation when you might enjoy a greater satisfaction?
Thanks for reading, everyone. What do you think of the personality-fitness connection? Has it influenced your choices? How did your find your motivation, and how did past messages support or discourage your identification with fitness? Have a great end to the week.
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