Research has provided in-depth knowledge about the physical benefits of exercise, but a practical understanding of the psychology of exercise is only beginning to unfold. Sports science allows us to determine the calories we burn, the oxygen we consume, and the muscles we build as a result of an hour on the treadmill. But how much do we understand about the psychological payoffs of different exercise routines; what do we really know about how sports build character? This article offers an overview of the psychological benefits of exercise, and the way in which sports and fitness programs develop psychological skills.
Part I. Psychological Benefits
Sports science tells us that certain kinds of exercise will lift your mood, relieve your stress, and make you feel better about yourself, but exactly how does this happen, and what do you have to do to reap these benefits? Research from literally thousands of studies will help us answer these questions. As a fitness professional, you have personal experiences of how exercise affects psychological well-being. Reflect on these experiences while reading this article as a way of personally validating the conclusions from research.
People with high levels of psychological well-being (PWB) report significant satisfaction with their life accomplishments and circumstances, they have a perceived relative absence of anxiety and depression, they are capable of dealing with daily stresses, and they show high levels of enjoyment and self-esteem. The overwhelming conclusion from research on the psychological outcomes of exercise tells us that people who exercise regularly tend to have higher levels of PWB than those who are sedentary. Even with such strong evidence, researchers caution against making causal inferences. That is, while people who exercise tend to have higher levels of PWB than those who don’t, scientists are reluctant to conclude that exercise causes high levels of PWB. It may be that people who choose to exercise have higher levels of PWB to begin with perhaps due to the fact that they feel in that they are maintaining a state of homeostasis through the achievement of personal control.
Since the concept of psychological well-being is made up of a number of distinct psychological outcomes, it may be more helpful to review how exercise relates to such components of PWB as psychological depression, anxiety, self-esteem, reactivity to stress, cognitive functioning, and positive moods.
Depression refers to an emotional state characterized by sadness and lethargy. It varies in degree from “feeling blue” to an extreme state of despair and suicidal thoughts. Can exercise help? The unequivocal answer is yes. In fact, the more severe the depression, the more beneficial regular exercise can be. As you probably realize from your personal experience, common feelings of being down or “blue” dissipate during and after a good workout. While regular exercise can reduce depressive feelings, the consensus Is that an ongoing and persistent depression is best responded to with a combination of exercise and psychotherapy. Fitness professionals may work in tandem with mental health specialists in promoting clients’ return to health.
Are some forms of exercise better than others? In general, the answer is no. The critical factor is time. Within reason, the more regularly people exercise, the more benefits they experience. Remember, however, that extreme levels of exercise can induce feelings of depression, rather than alleviate them. The duration and intensity of exercise programs most beneficial to reducing depression correspond to guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine.
A person may experience momentary anxiety or be predisposed to anxious feelings in a wide variety of situations. Momentary feelings are referred to as state anxiety, while a general tendency to be anxious in a number of situations over a long period of time is defined as trait anxiety. Anxiety is generally represented by feelings of apprehension and tension. Research consistently shows that exercise helps reduce these anxious feelings and that benefits may persist for hours after the exercise session.
People with a predisposition to anxiety (trait anxiety) will also profit from a regular exercise program. Reaping these benefits requires regularity, generally in accordance with ACSM guidelines for intensity and duration. While there is some controversy about the type of exercise that may be helpful, it is generally thought that aerobic activities offer the best option to promote well-being. Severe or clinical anxiety needs to be evaluated and treated by mental health professionals, though exercise will often constitute as one of the treatment modalities. Also keep in mind that while exercise reduces anxiety, not all anxious feelings will be eliminated.
Self-esteem roughly translates as feelings of self-worth and competency. Of the hundreds of studies that have investigated the effects of exercise on self-esteem, none have reported negative effects. In fact, the general conclusion is that people who exercise regularly tend to have higher levels of self-esteem than those who are sedentary. If someone is experiencing low self-esteem, what should you recommend? The most beneficial programs for low self-esteem individuals are likely to be those that allow the person to experience success, goal attainment, and feelings of physical competence. This means that the level of difficulty of the activity needs to be one that the individual can predictably master. It may also mean that competitive situations could be ill-advised for people whose self-worth is low.
Reactivity to Stress
Life is stressful, so it is normal to encounter stress in our daily lives. Stress results whenever we are expected to cope or adjust to situational demands. Stress itself isn’t problematic; it is the frequency and intensity of stress reactions that cause difficulty. A regular program of exercise can help reduce the magnitude of stress reactivity that we might otherwise experience when life requires us to adjust, respond, or cope. Not only does exercise help lower our physiological reactions to stress, but it may also help reduce anxiety-related thoughts. People with highly stressful lives will fare better if they participate in regular exercise than if they are inactive. Since exercise itself represents a stressful demand on our bodies, it makes sense that exercise programs designed to lower stress reactivity should not themselves be overly demanding, competitive, or frustrating.
There have been numerous claims that exercise can improve memory, increase intelligence, and sharpen mental acuity. While there may be more than a grain of truth in these assertions, research findings are generally more conservative in nature. Some studies have reported that people have quicker reactions to timed tasks, better mathematical performance, and better mental acuity after exercising than after a period of inactivity, yet the consensus of research is that these effects may be modest and are not always reliable. Common sense tells us that moderate exercise may help us feel more alert, while high intensity and prolonged exercise sessions may temporarily reduce mental performance.
Positive Moods and Energy
It may seem almost paradoxical that when we expend energy in exercise, we feel more energetic as a result. Even short (10-minute) walks have been shown to increase an individual’s perceived level of energy and vitality for up to 2 hours afterwards. It has also been demonstrated that people who exercise report an increase in positive affect, which may be experienced as tranquility, happiness, pleasure, or simply a sense of fun. Some researchers think that this increase in positive affect could be due to the interactive nature of many exercise programs. This interpretation implies that we are more likely to experience positive feelings when exercise takes place in a social context.
Compulsivity and Addiction
To turn a phrase, can anything this good be bad for you? Over the past few decades, many reports have appeared on the “dark side” of exercise-addiction, compulsive behavior, and dependency. While these individual reports may have some basis, the case has been largely over represented. With population statistics highlighting the sedentary lifestyles of most North Americans, the problem is far more one of inactivity than of excessive activity. Only a minute fraction of the population manifest exercise habits that qualify as excessive and psychologically problematic).
Even in these cases, the “exercise addiction” tends to be part of a larger syndrome usually associated with such clinical disorders as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. The consensus of experts is that there is no clear evidence that people can become addicted to exercise the way they might to such substances as alcohol or drugs etc.) There is, however, a tendency for people who habitually exercise to experience some feelings of withdrawal when they are deprived of their opportunity to exercise. They may feel higher Levels of anxiety and depression, or they may experience unpleasant physical symptoms during periods of inactivity.
Once again, common sense provides meaningful guidance for maintaining healthy exercise patterns. When a person’s commitment to exercise begins to overshadow other critical life commitments or when severe anxiety and depression are encountered during short periods of exercise withdrawal, there would be reason to question whether the individual’s exercise pattern is symptomatic of a more serious, underlying disturbance in need of referral to and evaluation by a mental health professional.
Explanations for Psychological Benefits
Some Recommendations for Program Design Sport scientists have not been satisfied knowing that exercise reliably offers such considerable psychological benefits to participants. Their inquiries have delved into the underlying mechanisms that might contribute to these effects. Results of hundreds of investigations have generated a riumber of factors, each with relative merit and explanatory potential. One explanation is based on the increase in the body’s temperature caused by exercising. This hyperthermic effect is thought to produce more relaxed peripheral musculature (a sense of physical calm) that can continue for hours after the exercise period.
Another theory proposes that increases in blood pressure and cardiovascular activity during exercise impacts the central nervous system in such a way as to reduce cortical stimulation and, over time, promote feelings of relaxation. Another physiologically-based model hypothesizes exercise may increase sensitivity of the right hemisphere of the brain which is associated with feelings of tranquility and nonlinear thinking.
One of the most popular explanations of psychological benefits is based on neuroendocrinal responses to exercise. Changes in chemical transmitter substances, such as norepinephrine and serotonin, alter communication between adjacent neurons in the brain and have profound effects on central brain processes. The end results of these transmitter changes, caused by physical activity, are often experienced in improved sleep, mood improvements, and anxiety reduction.
From a psychological perspective, a predominant theory regarding the benefits of exercise rests on the idea that when we exercise, we take “time out” from life issues and problems that demand our attention or require us to cope. In this respect, exercise periods constitute a mini-holiday from stress. The “time out” model applies not only to exercise, but to any recreational activity that provides a positive break from routine.
Summary: A full explanation of how exercise produces different psychological benefits is likely to require both physiological and psychological theories. Temperature, cardiovascular, and biochemical changes take place while we exercise, and as we take “time out” from the daily hassles and concerns of our lives. In combination, these changes bring about an enhanced sense of well-being including lower anxiety, decreases in depression, feelings of enjoyment, positive moods, and an increased ability to deal with stress.
To maximize the psychological benefits of exercise, sports scientists have offered a number of helpful suggestions about program design. These are perhaps best captured in a model described by Dr. Bonnie Berger in which she recommends that psychological benefits are likely to be enhanced when exercise programs capture the following qualities or characteristics.
- Enjoyment. What one person finds enjoyable, another may find disagreeable. The definition of an enjoyable activity is highly subjective, yet the importance of doing something that one finds pleasing and enjoyable is critical to maximizing psychological payoffs.
- Rhythmic abdominal breathing or aerobic exercise. There has been significant debate about whether exercise needs to be aerobic in order to produce reliable psychological benefits. Some studies have shown that activities like yoga, which involve rhythmical abdominal breathing, produce benefits similar to those from aerobic activities. Based on these findings, a regular fitness program will provide the best benefits, either when it is aerobic in nature or when it involves rhythmical abdominal breathing.
- Absence of interpersonal competition. Half the people involved in competitive activities lose. Along with the experience of losing, often go self-criticism and negative emotional states. If your self-esteem is at a high level, losing a game isn’t as likely to throw you for a spin. Remember, however, that self-esteem waxes and wanes based on life experiences, and if you happen to be on a losing streak in life, involving yourself in a steady diet of competitively-oriented sports may accelerate your downward spiral. This highlights the need for a personal lifestyle fitness (or wellness) coach to create scenarios where the client can feel successful in a non-competitive setting.
- Closed or predictable activity. When life circumstances are ambiguous, uncertain, and uncontrollable, having an exercise program that is predictable and contained may help. Swimming laps in a pool, doing a weight-training circuit, or going for a run on a well-worn path may allow your mind to release into free association. Such activities can also provide opportunities for solitude and reflection. While this may not work for all people or even at all times, this prescription can be important when the rest of one’s life feels chaotic and stressful.
- Moderate intensity. Throughout the literature on the psychological benefits of exercise are consistent recommendations for moderate, rather than light or intense, exercise. As a rule of thumb, engaging in a program that moderately taxes your body will more reliably produce beneficial psychological outcomes than participating in one that is either too hard or too easy.
- A minimum of 20-30 minutes. More is not always better, and less is not always without benefit. Whenever possible, exercise sessions should be scheduled to last at least 20-30 minutes, remembering of course that even 10-minute exercise periods have been shown to have some psychological payoffs.
- Weekly scheduling. The frequency of exercise sessions may vary according to preference, conditioning, and age. In general, the formula of being active on a daily basis-in one way or another is a good one. When frequency drops below three times per week, psychological benefits usually decline as well.
When people participate in exercise and fitness programs as part of an ongoing effort to enhance physical and psychological well-being, their activities need to be chosen in a way that complements and respects other dimensions of their lives. A primary question to ask about fitness programs is whether or not they are enjoyable. If the answer is yes, exercise adherence is likely to remain high throughout the decades of life, and the considerable psychological benefits of exercise will continue to occrue.
The Big Picture-Keeping Benefits in Perspective
Exercise has been described as a kind of wonder drug that generates a sense of euphoria-experiences of creativity, sexual energy, mental powers, and stress resilience. With thousands of studies behind us, we are capable of putting exercise in perspective. What’s the bottom line? It’s a good thing, a very good thing. Yet, to over promote its benefits is to create disappointment. Exercise is part of a program for healthy living-it’s not the whole package. One cannot exercise regularly, while eating poorly or neglecting other critical dimensions of living, and expect to feel good. Exercising wisely may be one of our most significant daily investments, yet it cannot compensate for inattention to other sound practices of health promotion. You don’t need to sell clients on the psychological benefits of exercise. They will know them well enough through their personal experience. Your primary role is to help them shape programs that follow sensible guidelines for participation and sound principles of activity selection.
Part II: How sports builds character?
The expression “Sports builds character!” is so commonplace that it’s true meaning may be overlooked. Consider how you and your clients unconsciously respond to physical activities based on their implicit “personalities.” Just as you react positively or negatively to different people you meet, you may be drawn to or repelled by qualities embodied in particular sports and fitness programs. “Running is freeing!” “Martial arts are empowering!” “Tennis is fun!” “Yoga is relaxing!” Your clients carry certain projections of what it’s like to play particular games or undertake specific physical activities. While there may be wisdom in their beliefs, the psychology of sports and fitness allows us to go beyond common perceptions to capture the specific psychosocial skills that different activities promote.
A 20-year-old-woman who begins exercising for an hour each day will have logged more than 21,900 hours by the time she turns 80 years of age. If this woman understood how different sports and fitness programs emphasize the development of different psychosocial skills, she could use this information to choose activities that might assist her in mastering the psychosocial challenges that confront her at different phases of life.
How might this happen? Each sport you play or exercise you practice makes specific psychosocial demands of you. You may be asked to compete or to do it alone. You may be required to run full force to the finish line or dance balletically to choreographed steps. For each required movement or interaction, there is a corresponding psychological space that you enter within yourself so that you can stay in the “game.” Over long periods of training, these spaces become home base-they give shape and structure to who you are. The longer and more intensely you participate, the deeper the personal change.
Each sport or activity represents a menu of emotional and behavioral experience that you elect to have as part of your life. Over time, you may come to incorporate these elements into your definition of yourself and your behavioral strategy in the world. Knowing which psychosocial skills to emphasize comes through reflection on what your life needs in the moment in order for you to accomplish your goals and satisfy your needs. For example, if you are uncomfortable with competition, yet want to develop a greater sense of ease and personal competency when confronted with competitive situations, you can increase your personal effectiveness and life satisfaction by consciously choosing an activity that allows you to nurture your competitive potential. By choosing to condition your emotional response patterns in a self-managed process of change through sports and exercise, you create opportunities to enhance your potential in living, and thereby broaden your behavioral repertoire.
You can characterize yourself based on how much you enjoy social interactions, competitive contests, or risky ventures. So, you can describe any sport or fitness program based on the degree it requires you to interact socially, be competitive, or take risks. Choosing a fitness program might be based on which psychosocial traits you want to reinforce or bolster through participation. Consider each of the dimensions as they are described below, and then refer to the Seven Dimensions Chart to study bow different activities rank on the dimensions in question.
1. Sociability: You may be a very social person or someone who prefers to do most things alone. In some cases, the choice to do things alone comes from a feeling of insecurity or discomfort with social interactions. Since exercise reduces anxiety, people who experience social anxiety will be less uncomfortable if they interact with others while exercising. In this regard, people can choose more social activities as a way of conditioning themselves to engage more freely in social encounters. The reverse is also true. If people want to develop a greater sense of independence, they can choose activities that require them to train on their own.
2. Spontaneity: You may be inclined to make spur-of-the-moment decisions or you may plan your life in great detail. Learning how to be more spontaneous or to exercise more control in your life can be assisted by choosing activities with the qualities you desire. Imagine taking an improvisational dance class to encourage your ability to be flexible in the moment. Or, by contrast, imagine designing a systematic weight training program to reinforce your feeling of self-management and self-control.
3. Intrinsic/Extrinsic Motivation: Some people need lots of support and encouragement to stick to a routine or to keep commitments (extrinsically motivated). Others manifest high levels of self-discipline in everything they do (intrinsically motivated). If you fall into the former category, choosing a fitness activity that has a number of built-in reinforcements for high-level participation will be critical while you are developing an exercise habit. However, once you have gotten into the habit of exercising, selecting activities that require you to rely on your internal motivation rather than external incentives for exercising can carry over in helping you gain a greater sense of self-sufficiency and personal reliability. On the other side of this equation, you may be missing out on a lot of fun activities if your intrinsic motivation always directs you to activities that are difficult and challenging.
4. Aggressiveness: This quality can be learned, as can a more relaxed and receptive stance toward life. Different fitness programs require you to act more or less aggressively. For example, it’s generally not a good idea to be aggressive while practicing yoga, yet a racquet sport demands it. Depending on whether you need to learn to “go with the flow” or develop a more forceful character, your choice of activity can help you reinforce these qualities. Remember that aggression doesn’t equate to violence. Substitute the term “assertiveness” which has to do with standing your ground, taking your place, and being strong in the face of conflict. Lots of sports foster assertive behavior.
5. Competitiveness: Some people thrive on competition, while others are traumatized by competitive interactions. Depending on who you are and what you need to function effectively in your present circumstances, you may want to choose an activity that encourages collaborative action or one that engages your competitive spirit. You may also want to choose an activity that takes you completely away from interactions with others, collaborative or competitive, so you can create opportunities for reflection.
6. Mental Focus: Some sports or exercise programs resemble meditation in how they demand complete focus on what you are doing in the moment; others encourage free association by allowing your mind to wander wherever it wants. If you need an activity that will focus your mind, you can choose one (e.g., basketball) that rivets your attention in the moment. If you need time for your mind to wander at will, activities like distance running or swimming will create all the space you need for that to occur. A third possibility is intentionally bringing a meditative focus to activities that don’t necessarily require it. You can run on a treadmill and watch TV, or you can drop into your breath and focus.
7. Adventurousness: You may be a risk-taker or you may be very cautious in all aspects of your life. Upon reflection, you may decide that you need to learn how to take more risks or perhaps that you need to create more personal safety. The sports you choose can be designed to reinforce either a more adventurous style or one that reduces your risks. Be aware that activities can be risky in either psychological or physical ways. Simply challenging yourself to do something new can be risky, and it allows you to stretch into new dimensions of your life. On the other hand, doing what is safe and known can increase your sense of personal boundaries and safety.
Guidelines for Application
The Seven Dimensions Chart provides guidance concerning the degree to which different activities emphasize each of the dimensions. There are essentially two principles for choosing activities based on the seven dimensions: (a) strategic matching, and (b) strategic mismatching.
Principle 1. Strategic Matching-When people don’t have a well-ingrained exercise habit, activities should roughly match their psychosocial profiles. For example, if a man is very social and competitive, matching him with activities that are social and allow for competitive possibilities will improve adherence. Also when individuals have behavioral. patterns that are working well for them, it’s advisable-from a psychological perspective-to find programs that are essentially similar to their psychosocial style preferences.
Principle 2. Strategic Mismatching-When individuals exercise regularly, it may be opportune for them to use exercise programs as a mechanism for building their psychosocial skills. Let’s assume a man has difficulty being assertive and thriving in a competitive work environment. If this person chooses to work on these psychosocial competencies, he can consciously design his fitness program so it incorporates more of these elements. This doesn’t mean jumping into the most competitive game possible, but rather gradually introducing activities that incorporate these elements on a once or twice weekly basis. Having a coach or a trainer as he takes on this psychosocial challenge can be most beneficial both in mastering the activity and in keeping adherence at a high level.
Recognizing the thousands of hours an active person will spend in physical activity over the course of his or her lifetime argues in favor of consciously designing fitness programs so they reinforce traits we want to either develop or maintain. Engaging in physical activity over all these years without conscious awareness of how they work on different facets of our personalities may represent a missed opportunity. Sports and exercise have traditionally been recognized for their physical development attributes, and only in the broadest way for their character building potential). The seven psychosocial dimensions provide helpful guidance for understanding the specific traits that might be reinforced in different fitness programs.
You can be sure that the future of fitness will embrace a more comprehensive analysis of sports and exercise. Prescriptions for participants will include not only physiological parameters, but also the kind of character an individual wants to develop through practice. The psychology of exercise is not just about the sense of psychological well-being that is promoted through regular participation; it is also about the potential exercise holds as a mechanism for personal growth and change. This article has overviewed the principal psychological outcomes that have been verified through thousands of research investigations. The overall conclusion is extremely positive.
Sport scientists are in strong agreement that regular physical activity promotes psychological well-being, which is defined as including lower levels of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem, greater resilience to stress, and a more positive outlook on life. Research also supports the idea that exercise can be used as part of a conscious plan to enhance psychosocial functioning according to needs that may arise at the various phases and stages of one’s life. A well-rounded individual has the competency to be social and to work alone, to be competitive or collaborative as required, to be assertive or receptive, to take risks or to emphasize psychological and physical safety. Consciously varying one’s sport or physical activity to enhance one’s psychosocial competencies in life multiplies the reasons we have for exercising and the benefits we derive.