Personality Traits And Exercise

In the past 30 years, personality researchers have amassed  a  considerable  body  of  evidence  to  support  the  importance  of  traits  as  crucial  determinants  of  behavior.  This  research  has  shown  that personality  is  structured  similarly  across  over  50 cultures,  shows  evidence  of  genetic  heritability, has high stability across time, and does not relate strongly  to  parental  rearing  style.  Although  several  pathways  for  how  personality  interacts  with health  have  been  postulated,  most  physical  activity (PA) research has been based on the hypothesis that personality affects the quality of one’s health practices. More specifically, personality is hypothesized to affect social cognitions (e.g., perceptions, attitudes, norms, self-efficacy) toward a behavior, which in turn influence the health behavior itself.

Personality Trait Structure

Although several models of trait personality have been researched and postulated, the dominant two frameworks are Hans Eysenck’s three-factor model and  the  five-factor  model  (FFM).  Eysenck  originally developed his theory with two factors: extraversion–introversion (e.g., tendency to be sociable, assertive,  energetic,  seek  excitement,  and  experience  positive  affect)  and  neuroticism–emotional stability (e.g., tendency to be emotionally unstable, anxious,  self-conscious,  and  vulnerable).  He  later added  a  third  trait  called  psychoticism–superego (e.g.,  risk  taking,  impulsiveness,  irresponsibility,  manipulativeness,  sensation  seeking,  toughmindedness,  nonpragmatism)  to  his  model.  The most popular personality model at present is a five-factor  taxonomy.  This  model  suggests  that  neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience and intellect  (e.g.,  tendency  to  be  perceptive,  creative, reflective  and  appreciate  fantasy,  and  aesthetics), agreeableness (e.g., tendency to be kind, cooperative,  altruistic,  trustworthy,  and  generous),  and conscientiousness  (e.g.,  tendency  to  be  ordered, dutiful, self-disciplined, and achievement oriented) are the basic factors of personality structure.

Both  the  three and  five-factor  taxonomies  are thought  to  represent  the  basic  building  blocks  of personality and subsequently cause the expression of  more  specific  subtraits.  Thus,  individuals  high in extraversion may express this higher-order trait through excitement seeking, sociability, a positive outlook, energetic activity, or another possible outlet  that  is  feasible  and  socially  conditioned  from        one’s  environment.  Mixtures  of  these  five  factors of personality may also produce traits of interest. For example, type A behavior may be a combination  of  high  extraversion,  high  neuroticism,  low agreeableness, and high conscientiousness. While it is important to continue with a higher-order supertrait  understanding  of  personality  and  behavior, these  facet  or  specific  traits  may  also  help  define the  relationship  between  personality  and  specific behaviors like PA.

Personality and Physical Activity

In  2006,  Ryan  E.  Rhodes  and  N.  E.  I.  Smith reviewed and systematically appraised the relationship between personality and PA for the three and five-factor models of personality. Overall, neuroticism  showed  a  small  negative  relationship  with PA,  while  extraversion  and  conscientiousness  had positive  correlations.  The  most  compelling  evidence for these relationships is from a 40-year longitudinal trial conducted by Margaret L. Kern and colleagues  in  which  neuroticism  and  extraversion were found to be predictive of PA changes across time. Agreeableness and openness to experience did not  have  a  relationship  with  PA.  Eysenck’s  third construct of psychoticism also had no evidence of a relationship with PA.

Extraversion concerns the differences in preference  for  social  interaction  and  lively  activity;  the seeking  of  PA  behaviors  appears  a  logical  extension for people high in this trait while the disinterest in PA seems likely for those low in extraversion. Individuals  with  high  neuroticism  are  those  with less emotional stability and more distress, anxiety, and  depression  than  those  with  lower  neuroticism. Avoidance of PA or cancellation of PA plans is a logical extension of this trait. High scores of conscientiousness  represent  a  purposeful,  self-disciplined  individual,  suggesting  that  this  factor may  be  important  in  terms  of  adherence  behavior.  The  predisposition  to  maintain  PA  behavior appears  to  be  logical  for  individuals  who  possess higher  conscientiousness  than  their  low  conscientiousness counterparts.

Rhodes and Smith and a follow-up review also examined whether other variables interacted with the relationship between personality and PA. The stability  of  personality  suggests  that  it  should  be relatively  invariant  to  most  factors  across  demographics  and  cultures  and  this  is  generally  what was  found.  They  concluded  that  no  reliable  differences  by  gender,  age,  and  study  design  or instrumentation  were  evident.  They  did  notice  a potential trend by country, where extraversion had a  larger  correlation  with  PA  in  Canada  and  the United  States  than  in  the  United  Kingdom.  They also found that strenuous and moderate intensity modalities of PA may be associated with personality  factors  of  neuroticism,  extraversion,  and  conscientiousness more than lower intensity activities.

Rhodes  and  Leila  A.  Pfaeffli  reviewed  the  evidence  for  several  of  the  more  specific  facet  and lower-order  traits  and  their  relationship  with  PA. Sociability  (preference  for  the  company  of  others and  gravitation  to  social  situations)  and  dispositional optimism (generalized expectations of positive  outcomes)  were  not  related  to  PA,  but  type A,  activity,  and  industriousness-ambition  showed some evidence as correlates.

Type  A  personality  gained  popularity  from  its association  with  coronary  heart  disease  and  it  is marked by a blend of competitiveness and hostility with  agitated  behavior  and  continual  movement patterns;  thus,  PA  could  conceivably  be  a  natural  extension  of  type  A  individuals.  Rhodes  and Pfaeffli  reviewed  six  studies  that  have  appraised the relationship between type A and PA. Overall, five  of  the  six  studies  in  nonclinical  populations showed   some   significant   positive   association between  type  A  and  PA  in  the  small  to  medium effect size (ES) range.

Extraversion’s activity facet represents a disposition  toward  a  fast  lifestyle,  being  high  energy, fast  talking,  and  keeping  busy  as  opposed  to  a more  laissez  faire  disposition.  These  properties could  conceivably  make  regular  PA  a  behavior of  choice  given  its  energy  demands.  Rhodes  and Pfaeffli’s literature review identified six studies that have examined the association of the activity facet with  PA.  In  all  cases,  the  activity  facet  showed  a medium to large correlation with behavior. More compelling,  the  three  studies  directly  comparing  the  predictive  capacity  of  activity  against  the superordinate  dimension  of  extraversion  showed the  superiority  of  the  activity  facet.  Overall,  the results suggest that extraversion’s activity facet is a reliable and strong predictor of PA.

Conscientiousness’s   facet   of   industriousness–ambition   has   also   received   attention   in four   studies.   The   facet   comprises   aspects   of achievement-striving  and  self-discipline  and  a natural extension of this type of disposition could be  regular  exercise  given  its  challenge,  impact  on health  and  appearance,  and  self-regulatory  barriers.  Three  of  the  four  studies  found  a  significant relationship between this facet and behavior, suggesting it may be the critical link between conscientiousness and PA.

Mediation and Moderation Tests of Physical Activity and Social Cognition

Personality theorists and social psychologists generally agree that behavioral action is unlikely to arise directly  from  personality.  Instead,  personality  is thought to influence behavioral perceptions, expectations,  and  cognitions.  The  theory  of  planned behavior (TPB) has been the leading model to test this assumption in the PA domain with 16 of these tests. According to Icek Ajzen, personality should affect behavior through the constructs of attitude, subjective norm, and perceived behavioral control. Thus, the TPB should mediate personality and PA relations.  This  test,  however,  was  only  supported in 3 of the 16 studies. The remaining tests showed evidence  for  only  partial  mediation.  Overall,  the results suggest that attitudes, social norms and perceived  control  may  not  always  fully  mediate  the relationship between personality and PA.

Another way that personality may affect behavior is by interacting with PA motivation. A review of factors that interact with the intention-behavior relationship  found  convincing  evidence  that  conscientiousness  may  alter  this  relationship.  The basic  premise  for  this  finding  is  that  people  who are  more  conscientious  are  more  likely  to  act  on their good intentions than their less conscientious counterparts. It may be that the disposition toward achievement  keeps  high-conscientiousness  individuals  from  slipping  in  their  original  PA  plans. There is also some evidence that extraversion may interact  with  intention.  The  rationale  behind  this proposed  relationship  is  that  individuals  high  on extraversion may facilitate their intentions through gravitating toward active environments than more introverted individuals.

Personality and Intervention

Based on the enduring and stable nature of traits, it seems it would be a difficult enterprise to plan an intervention to change personality. Personality traits  have  been  shown  to  change,  particularly  in adolescence,  but  change  among  adults  generally unfolds very slowly across the life cycle. Personality should resemble other intractable correlates of PA such as age, disability, or gender. Introverts or less conscientious individuals may need targeted interventions to help them increase PA despite a natural inclination to be less active.

The proposal for personality-matched interventions  has  appeal,  but  very  limited  research  has been  conducted  on  this  approach.  Rhodes  and D.  H.  Matheson  examined  whether  a  planning intervention among low-conscientiousness individuals could help improve PA over a control group. The effects were null, but it may have been from an  ineffective  intervention  as  most  of  the  participants reported that they did not even complete the planning worksheet. By contrast, Yong Peng Why and  colleagues  examined  the  effects  of  a  walking intervention  and  found  that  messages  were  more effective  in  increasing  walking  behavior  among conscientious individuals than their less conscientious  counterparts.  The  results  underscore  that personality  traits  may  need  targeting  to  help  less conscientious individuals.


Personality psychology has a rich and spirited history, but contemporary research has supported the premise that people have enduring and stable individual  differences  in  how  they  express  thoughts, feelings,  and  actions.  A  review  by  Rhodes  and Smith identified extraversion (r = .23), neuroticism (r = –.11), and conscientiousness (r = .20) as the key personality dimensions related to PA. A subsequent review  of  the  more  specific  facets  suggested  that extraversion’s  facet  of  activity  and  adventurousness  and  conscientiousness’  facet  of  achievement striving  and  ambition  may  be  the  critical  components  that  are  related  to  PA.  Type  A  personality, which  includes  components  of  both  the  activity and achievement striving traits (as well as hostility), was also shown as a reliable predictor of PA.

There  is  some  evidence  that  these  traits  may affect PA through social cognitive constructs such as  attitudes,  norms,  and  perceived  behavioral control. Personality may also affect the success of holding  to  positive  PA  intentions.  Research  has been  quite  convincing  in  demonstrating  that  people low on conscientiousness have more difficulty holding  to  their  initial  PA  intentions  than  people who  are  high  on  conscientiousness.  The  findings suggest that understanding “at risk” personalities may  be  important  when  creating  interventions. Interventions that consider one’s introversion, for example,  and  target  behaviors  accordingly  (e.g., home-based, solo or with one friend, low intensity) may  have  utility.  The  topic  has  not  received  very much research at present. Future research is needed to examine this personality matching strategy.


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  2. Kern, M. L., Reynolds, C. A., & Friedman, H. S. (2010). Predictors of physical activity patterns across adulthood: A growth curve analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1058–1072.
  3. McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1995). Trait explanations in personality psychology. European Journal of Personality, 9, 231–252.
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  5. Rhodes, R. E., & Pfaeffli, L. A. (2012). Personality. In E. O. Acevedo (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of exercise psychology (pp. 195–223). New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Rhodes, R. E., & Smith, N. E. I. (2006). Personality correlates of physical activity: A review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40,958–965.
  7. Why, Y. P., Huang, Z. R., & Sandhu, P. K. (2010).Affective messages increase leisure walking only among conscientious individuals. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 752–756. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.022

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