The Psychology of Exercise

by Jim Gavin, PhD , Daniel Seguin and Madeleine McBrearty, PhD (candidate) on Feb 01, 2006

A review of the latest research provides clues about what motivates people to exercise and what keeps them coming back.

As a fitness professional, you have firsthand knowledge of how clients think, feel and act in relation to exercise. But how does your understanding compare with findings from recent exercise psychology research? Take this pop quiz.

1. Do older adults place more emphasis than younger exercisers on the health benefits of exercise?

2. Are women who take aerobic dance classes more satisfied with their bodies than women who take hatha yoga?

3. Is aerobic exercise better than nonaerobic activity for boosting moods?

4. Do runners find longer-duration runs more effortful than shorter ones?

5. Does mental distraction make exercising easier?

To find out how your answers compare with the statistics, take this journey with us through a review of exercise psychology research. In this review, we investigate some of the more interesting trends and findings from 2002, when the last review was conducted (Gavin & Spitzer 2002), until 2005. We focus specifically on exercise psychology, which studies the general population, rather than sport psychology, which spotlights athletes. The review is organized around three themes:

  • motivation and participation
  • exercise structures
  • exercise benefits

Motivation and Participation

What have we learned in recent years about why people initiate exercise and, hence, what we can do to encourage them to start—and stick with it? The studies we reviewed investigated the influence of age and sex, as well as exercise structure.

Age Differences. Many people believe that older adults exercise predominantly for health reasons. But in a study of 692 adults who for the most part (87%) exercised regularly, “positive health” was the most important motive for exercise across all age groups; moreover, it was equally important for men and women, and for all levels of socioeconomic status (Rochholz 2004). A related study supported the universal appeal of health as a motivator, and found the distinguishing factor between older and younger exercisers to be the declining importance of physical appearance as a motivator with increasing age (Trujillo, Brougham & Walsh 2004).

In a study of 2,390 Belgians, additional age-related exercise motives were identified (De Bourdeaudhuij & Sallis 2002). For young women 16–25 years old, health was the most significant reason for exercise; but for young men of the same age, it was competition. Two other findings emerged in this study: (1) Social support for physical activity from friends and family was seen as critically important, irrespective of age or sex; and (2) surprisingly, among these subjects, enjoyment did not figure as a relevant motivator for any age group or sex. This last finding deserves our attention. Is exercise perceived as a necessary evil, and how much might this contribute to low participation rates?

In searching for the roots of exercise motivation, some researchers focused on adolescents. Not unexpectedly, weight issues figured prominently, but sex differences consistently emerged. Boys (16–18 years) were motivated as much by weight gain as weight loss, while most girls of the same age wanted to be lighter (Furnham, Badmin & Sneade 2002). In this same study, it was noted that self-esteem tended to be lower in girls who expressed dissatisfaction with their bodies, while in boys body dissatisfaction was unrelated to self-esteem. This finding suggests that societal forces continue to equate worthiness with physical appeal for women but not for men.

A parallel study of adolescents argued convincingly that their focus on weight management through physical activity was double-edged (Ingledew & Sullivan 2002): While this motivational base might motivate inactive teens to initiate exercise, it was thought to undermine intrinsic motivation, which serves to sustain involvement.

Sex Differences. Evidence on whether men or women participate more in leisure-time physical activity is equivocal (Brownson & Boehmer 2005), with some indicators suggesting that women are more physically active throughout the lifespan (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2002). Researchers have shown a keen interest in sex differences in exercise behaviors, with special attention focused on the related concerns of body image and eating disorders. Our review does not attempt to summarize knowledge about differences, but simply highlights new studies.

In one study women who participated in hatha yoga classes demonstrated a higher level of body satisfaction than women in aerobics classes—and also showed less tendency to objectify their bodies or internalize society’s “thinness ideal” (Daubenmier 2003). Paralleling these findings, another study concluded that women who exercised for reasons of weight, tone and attractiveness experienced lower self-esteem and body satisfaction than women who exercised for improved mood, health and enjoyment (Strelan, Mehaffey & Tiggemann 2003).

The problem of excessive exercise among women was explored with self-assessments. Women who reported that they exercised excessively had greater difficulty communicating feelings to others, experienced more extreme feeling states and had a higher incidence of bodily complaints. Though some women in this group were also found to have eating disorders, these two conditions did not always co-exist (Hentel 2003).

Exercise is normally associated with positive mental health; yet in a study of undergraduates, this relationship consistently held up only for men. For exercising women who did not have symptoms of disordered eating, the positive exercise–mental health relationship was evident. However, exercising women who had disordered eating patterns reported a greater incidence of negative feelings, depression and anxiety than women without these issues (Thome & Esplelage 2004). One implication of this study is that as much as exercise can improve moods and relative anxiety, it cannot counter the negative impact of other lifestyle behaviors.

A surprising finding emerged in a study of middle-aged women. We might anticipate that women who exercised regularly would show more concern about body image, weight and physical attractiveness than those who didn’t, but the opposite was true (Whaley 2003). Nonexercising women expressed greater hopes and fears related to body image than exercising women, even though the nonexercisers ostensibly weren’t engaged in positive physical action to support their hopes or counter their fears.

At the end of a workout, who do you think experiences greater reductions in mental and physical exhaustion—men or women? According to a study of 135 men and women participating in cardiovascular or weight training, although all exercisers showed mood benefits, women experienced significantly greater pre/postexercise reductions in reported levels of exhaustion (Rocheleau et al. 2004).

One study assessed the value of women-only fitness clubs and found not only that “social physique anxiety” was higher in women who exercised in a mixed-sex facility but also that more women than men were likely to shorten their workouts in this environment (Kruisselbrink et al. 2004).

Exercise Structures

Exercise psychologists continue to explore guidelines for duration, frequency and intensity. A fourth variable—modality, or the nature of the activity itself—is yet another major focus. Finally, many researchers have investigated the role of distraction in the exercise environment.

Duration. In our last review, we noted a study showing that exercisers could obtain mood benefits from as little as 10 minutes of aerobic activity (Hansen, Stevens & Coast 2001). What new findings have emerged in the past few years? The benefits of short bouts of exercise were re-examined in an 8-week study of sedentary adults that contrasted the mood benefits of three 10-minute exercise periods with those of a continuous 30-minute program. Both programs led to improvements in VO2 max and mood, but the continuous training resulted in greater reductions in percent body fat, anxiety and total mood disturbance, while increasing reported levels of happiness and vigor (Osei-Tutu & Campagna 2005). Though 10-minute bouts yielded both physical and psychological benefits, the authors argued that continuous 30-minute periods had greater psychotherapeutic effects.

When do mood changes become most evident? One study of experienced runners in a 60-minute treadmill run showed that improvements in composure, energy, elation and mental clarity became most evident after 40 minutes (O’Halloran, Murphy & Webster 2004). (This study focused on mood changes within, rather than after, the exercise experience.)

If you run 8 miles one day and 10 miles another day, which run will seem more effortful? If you don’t run often, will a 20-minute treadmill run seem more effortful than a 10-minute one? Counterintuitively, in a study by Baden and colleagues, the longer runs were experienced as less effortful. The authors suggested that the runners tended to tune out more in the longer runs, reducing their sense of fatigue and effort (Baden, Warwick-Evans & Lakomy 2004).

Duration and Intensity. What happens when duration is mixed with intensity? In a 3-day-a-week, 12-week exercise program, 56 relatively inactive adults were assigned to either a higher-intensity, shorter-duration workout (70% of VO2 max for 15–24 minutes) or a lower-intensity, longer-duration workout (50% of VO2max for 28–36 minutes), with both conditions equated for total work output. Although fitness gains were comparable between conditions, participants in the lower-intensity, longer-duration group expressed significantly less confidence in their ability to continue exercising. The authors reasoned that programs that are not perceived as challenging may reduce exercise motivation, even though the individuals in the longer, slower condition were as “successful” as those in the more intensive training regimen (Rodgers et al. 2002a).

Frequency and Intensity. If you were designing a walking program for sedentary men with the goal of improving adherence, would you prescribe three to four walks a week or five to seven? Would you design a high-intensity or moderate-intensity workout? If you answered three to four walks a week at moderate intensity, you would be right about intensity, but not frequency. Surprisingly, according to a study by Rodgers and colleagues (2002), the more frequent the prescribed exercise, the better the adherence. Not so surprising was the finding that high-intensity training was associated with more frequent injuries (Perri et al. 2002).

Two other studies generally support what might be considered rules of thumb regarding intensity. In the first, when exercise intensity required a transition to anaerobic metabolism, negative affect or feeling was generated (Hall, Ekkekakis & Petruzzello 2002). Even though feeling states tended to rebound after the exercise experience, the authors argued that such transient negative affect could reduce adherence, especially for inexperienced exercisers. The second study, which measured affect before and periodically after exercise (up to 60 minutes after), supported a curvilinear dose-response relationship between intensity and affective response: Moderate training intensities resulted in immediate, large and enduring affective benefits (Arent et al. 2005).

Modality. Common wisdom suggests that people are happiest when they are doing what they like, and research supports this bromide. In one study, participants did both an exercise of choice and no-choice stationary cycling. Not only did the cycling experience produce negative affect, but contrary to much of the evidence in exercise psychology, a control group experience of simply watching TV produced more positive affect than the cycling (Daley & Maynard 2003).

A perplexing result was observed in a comparison of four exercise modalities: aerobic dance, Feldenkrais®, yoga and swimming. Participants were 147 adult female teachers who took one session of each activity and then completed questionnaires. Contrary to typical findings, the aerobic dance experience produced no mood benefits, whereas the other activities generated more positive moods and enhanced feelings of well-being. The authors did not argue against potential mood benefits from aerobic dance; rather, they emphasized that low-intensity exercise can be as valuable in producing positive mood shifts (Netz & Lidor 2003).

Perhaps one activity is not necessarily better than another in terms of psychological benefits; the outcomes may simply differ. In a comparison of university hockey players and students who trained at health clubs, the hockey players reported more positive relations with others, greater sport competence and higher levels of sport importance; but club members expressed higher perceptions of body attractiveness and environmental mastery (Edwards, Edwards & Basson 2004).

Structured Distraction. Most fitness centers intuitively structure the environment so exercisers can distract themselves while training. Is this is a good thing? A study of runners on indoor tracks showed that the use of dissociative-external thoughts (watching others or the environment) helped the runners feel less physically exhausted and more revitalized (Blanchard, Rodgers & Gauvin 2004). A more indirect test comes from a study of students in aerobic dance classes who described the music (even more than the instructor) as the element contributing most to their sense of enjoyment (Wininger & Pargman 2003).

What effect do virtual-reality games and simulations have on the exercise experience? In one study in which these games were coupled with stationary cycling, they were found to increase energy, enhance enjoyment and reduce tiredness—even though without exercise they reduced energy and increased tension and tiredness (Plante et al. 2003b). A second study using walking as the exercise form supported these results (Plante et al. 2003a).

One final piece of evidence got right to the heart of the value of distraction. College students were instructed to exercise while reading, while watching TV or without any distraction. The results? No differences in mood benefits. The authors offered a convincing argument that it isn’t distraction per se that is important, but whether the distraction is enjoyable and self-motivating. Watching the TV news may be enjoyable for some viewers, while watching sports may motivate others. This variety is often reflected in the multiple TV monitors in gyms.

These studies on distraction reflect at best the tip of the iceberg. Far more needs to be understood about what different people do with their minds while exercising.

Exercise Benefits

Research generally supports the mood-boosting, anxiety-reducing, stress-buffering and esteem-generating benefits of physical activity (Gavin 2005; Penedo & Dahn 2005). Are there other advantages you can cite to your clients?

Studies in our review demonstrated how exercise can be helpful to people contending with diverse physical and emotional conditions. For instance, research indicated that increasing physical activity can have profound psychological benefits for people with spinal-cord injuries (Latimer, Martin & Hicks 2005), posttraumatic stress disorder (Manger & Motta 2005), Alzheimer’s disease (Heyn 2003), fibromyalgia (Oliver & Cronan 2005), HIV (Rojas, Schlicht & Hautzinger 2003) and breast cancer (Pinto et al. 2003), as well as general medical conditions (Hardcastle & Taylor 2005).

Are there still other benefits? Rather than naming them all, we will restrict our input to highlights that you may not know of or that can solidify your understanding.

In one study, people who exercised three to four times a week reported higher job performance than those who exercised one to two times a week, and both groups outperformed nonexercisers (Cone 2002). Moreover, exercisers had lower absenteeism and a greater awareness of health issues (Ur 2001).

Depressed individuals assigned to exercise programs that burned 17.5 kilocalories per kilogram per week showed significant improvements in depression scores, while those exercising at lower levels showed little improvement, similar to those noted in an inactive control group.

What will middle-aged people who have never exercised gain from initiating a workout program? Research on women aged 43–77 referred by their physicians for medical conditions indicates that the women developed a meaningful, self-sustaining new exercise identity. As one participant noted, “It’s redefining yourself and working out who you are” (Hardcastle & Taylor 2005). A related study of women referred by their doctors showed that one of the biggest gains in becoming active was self-acceptance (Crone, Smith & Gough 2005).

A number of studies focused on the benefits of exercise for different age groups. Of particular concern were cognitive, or mental-function, benefits for older exercisers and mood benefits for at-risk children. The case for cognitive benefits for the elderly seems strong (Colcombe & Kramer 2003), though there is question about whether exercise improves all aspects of mental functioning. One study of older adults (average age = 71) noted that exercise helps mostly in the recall of verbal information (Woo & Sharps 2003).

Results of a 6-week program directed toward low-income, at-risk Hispanic children showed that the brief intervention had a significant impact in reducing depression and increasing self-esteem (Crews, Lochbaum & Landers 2004). And a study of German adolescents (14–18 years) found that active teens showed less anxiety, depression and social inhibition than their inactive peers (Kirkcaldy, Shephard & Siefen 2002).

Evidence suggests that people who exercise regularly are better leaders. In a study at the Center for Creative Leadership, senior executives who were more physically active scored higher on leadership measures than their peers who were inactive (McDowell-Larsen, Kearney & Campbell 2002).

How Did You Do?

Go back and take that pop quiz again. Do the research results confirm your own experiences with clients? Remember, each study is a unique bundle of techniques, tests and participants. Change any of these elements and the results may differ. This isn’t an argument for discounting any of the findings, but rather one for interpreting them with caution.

The story this research summary tells is an optimistic one. Exercisers get many benefits from physical activity. The challenge is to inspire more people toward active living. We need to help people, not only with their biomechanics, but also with their psychology of movement. Through conversations and coaching, we can inspire people to find joy in their activities, purpose in what they do, relationships in their exercise world and, above all, the means to realize their dreams.


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IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 3, Issue 2

© 2006 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Authors

Jim Gavin, PhD

Jim Gavin, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Jim Gavin, PhD, is a professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University and has been involved in the practice of counseling and health promotion over the past 35 years.

Daniel Seguin IDEA Author/Presenter

Madeleine McBrearty, PhD (candidate) IDEA Author/Presenter