Psyched Up for Exercise; Personality Traits May Influence Our Habits

Article excerpt

Byline: Marcia Mattson, Times-Union staff writer

Amy Hagan thought she did a great job writing exercise plans for Xerox employees -- except nobody would do the exercise.

"It got me thinking, why aren't people doing it in general?" Hagan said.

So Hagan, a doctoral student at the University of Florida's Center for Exercise Science, started looking beyond the cardiovascular benefits of the treadmill and the muscle-building value of weight machines to a basic tenet of human nature:

People tend not to do things they dislike.

And for many people, working out is no fun because they try exercises that don't fit their personality.

The landfills are littered with abandoned exercise bikes, workout videos and treadmills. And half of all people who join a gym drop out within six months. Ninety percent drop out by two years, said UF professor Heather Hausenblas.

Hausenblas and Hagan are at the forefront of exercise psychology, a new science studying the links between personality and physical activity.

"If you look back 15 years ago, it really didn't exist" as a field of study, said Hausenblas, who lives in Orange Park and is director of the UF center's exercise psychology lab.

"There's a huge push now to understand why people are sedentary and how we can get them to exercise."

Hagan and Hausenblas gave about 500 UF students a 240-question personality test to measure their personality, exercise habits and preferences.

What they are discovering is the "big five" personality traits -- extroversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness -- influence how, and how much, a person exercises.

Extroversion is a measure of a person's sociability, assertiveness, talkativeness, enjoyment of large groups, excitement and stimulation.

Openness measures a person's imagination, receptiveness to experiences, intellectual curiosity, independence of judgment and attention to inner feelings.

People who are highly open are unconventional, willing to question authority and entertain new ideas. Those who have a low level of openness are conservative, conventional and prefer familiar experiences.

Agreeableness measures a person's attitude toward others. A highly agreeable person is altruistic, sympathetic and eager to help. A person with a low level of agreeableness is egocentric, skeptical of others' intentions and competitive.

Conscientiousness measures self-control. A highly conscientious person is purposeful, strong-willed and determined. Those who rank low are lackadaisical about working toward their goals.

Neuroticism is a measure of a person's emotional stability. It relates to the tendency to experience negative effects such as fear, sadness, embarrassment, anger, guilt and disgust. They are depressed, stressed and less trusting of others.

Hausenblas said highly neurotic people are least likely to exercise, but they need it most so they will have less anxiety, depression and stress.

Exercise psychology is starting to get funding from heavy-hitters such as the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association as the U.S. obesity rate climbs and new links between exercise and mental health are discovered, Hausenblas said.

A study of people with bulimia nervosa found those who exercised as a treatment did as well as those who took therapy and better than those prescribed drugs, Hausenblas said.

Regular exercisers react better to stress than sedentary folks, she said. The mind gets as much from exercise as the body, growing clearer, more creative, and invigorated after physical activity.

Next fall Hagan, a St. Petersburg resident, will give the personality survey to all the students in her classes.

Then she will order all the students in one of her classes to do the same exercise routine for a semester, while she personalizes a routine for each of the students in the other classes. …