GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Who you are determines how you stay fit, suggests a new University of Florida study that links personality as one factor in an individual’s willingness to stick to an exercise routine.
So rather than building one-size-fits-all gyms in hopes they will come, those who advocate regular exercise to combat the nation’s obesity epidemic may instead need to tailor their programs to suit the personality types of buff wannabes, said Amy Hagan, a graduate student in UF’s department of exercise and sport sciences.
“The ultimate application of this idea might be that someone who walks into a gym is given a short personality questionnaire to determine what will work best for them rather than being told to take the cookie-cutter approach of doing what everybody else does,” she said.
Hagan found that extroverts may have more success exercising in a gym than in the privacy of their homes, because they prefer the excitement and companionship of large groups in a gym, and those who crave new experiences could be better off with physical activity outdoors.
“If people’s personalities can predict what conditions are most favorable for them to exercise, then an exercise program can be tailored to fit their personal needs, making it more likely they will stick with a routine,” said Hagan, who will present her findings next month at the North American Society for the Psychology of Sports and Physical Activity meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Any such insight and motivation could help, because 60 percent of people who start an exercise program drop out within the first six months, and 90 percent do so by two years, Hagan said. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of people exercise enough to achieve health-related benefits, she said.
The research, which Hagan conducted for her doctoral dissertation, has important implications for helping prompt people to swap their sedentary lives for active ones, but personality is not the only factor involved in promoting such a lifestyle change, said Heather Hausenblas, a professor of exercise and sport sciences who supervised Hagan’s research.
“Personality is just one determinant of whether somebody will exercise or not,” Hausenblas said. “To establish a well-rounded or an effective exercise program, health-care professionals are encouraged to look at a variety of determinants, such as a person’s age, gender and socioeconomic status, all of which affect whether they are likely to stick with an exercise program.”
Hagan surveyed undergraduate students in sports and fitness classes at UF’s College of Health and Human Performance about personality, exercise preference and exercise behavior. A 300-item questionnaire was given first to 530 students. Then to acquire more detailed information, a second group of 330 other students received the same questions that included a greater range of responses.
The researchers used five major personality traits: extraversion, which measures sociability; neuroticism, which gauges emotional stability and refers to the tendency to feel fear, embarrassment, sadness and guilt; openness, one’s receptiveness to new experiences; agreeableness, the inclination to be agreeable and helpful; and conscientiousness, the tendency to be strong-willed and determined. Personality type was determined by whether or not someone scored high on a particular scale representing each of the five personality domains.
“People who are neurotic are least likely to exercise, but these are the very people who would benefit the most from the activity because it would help reduce their anxiety and stress,” Hagan said. These individuals preferred to do cardiovascular exercise indoors, making a home treadmill a better buy than a gym membership, and they also liked low-intensity workouts, she said.
Extraverts in the study preferred intensive exercise workouts and liked to exercise as much as they could, ideally an average of six days a week, Hagan said. “These excitement-craving people love lots of activity, and they want to go, go, go,” she said.
Being naturally gregarious makes a co-ed gym or an aerobics class a popular choice for extroverts, who also prefer to listen to music while exercising, Hagan said. “Music seems to add more excitement to their workout and gets them going even more vigorously,” she said.
Exercising in step to music also was favored by people scoring high on the openness scale, perhaps because it broadens the experience, Hagan said. Their preference for variety makes regularly scheduled exercise less appealing, and they would rather exercise outdoors than inside, she said.
Participants who had the traits identified with the conscientious personality type liked scheduled workout sessions along with high-intensity exercise, and said they would rather lead themselves in cardiovascular exercise than have a fitness instructor do it, Hagan said. “These are very self-disciplined people who strive to achieve something. They want to take charge of their own exercise routine to make sure it will get done,” she said.
Those also wanting to exercise regularly were the agreeable type, Hagan said. They liked morning workouts, perhaps because being compliant they like to know it has been completed, she said.
“Every day we learn more and more about the healthful benefits of exercise - both physical and psychological, she said. “The No. 1 problem in this country right now is the obesity epidemic, a problem preventable with exercise.”
Understanding personality is important for predicting people’s exercise habits, said Danielle Symons Downs, director of the exercise psychology laboratory at Pennsylvania State University.
“By identifying certain core attributes that are associated with physical activity, such as extraversion and motivation, researchers and practitioners are better equipped to design effective intervention programs promoting exercise for different groups of people,” she said.
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