The history of exercise psychology is closely intertwined with the history of sport psychology. Although discussed in separate entries in this encyclopedia, the history of sport and exercise psychology can be considered as one history, with some differing paths and forks, but continual connections. That history has roots going back into classical times, as reflected in the classical ideal of mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a healthy body), highlighting the mind-body connection, which is the essence of sport and exercise psychology. Hippocrates, widely acknowledged as the father of Western medicine, clearly connected mind and body in citing the role of exercise in health. As Janet Buckworth, Rod Dishman, Patrick O’Connor, and Phillip Tomporowski note in their 2013 exercise psychology text, the major religions emphasized healthy lifestyles in the early writings. In the Hebrew Bible, one can find, “She girdeth her loins with strength and strengthened her arms,” and 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides cautioned that anyone who leads a sedentary life and does not exercise will have painful days.
We can find research on physical activity and health in the early physical education and psychology work, but as an identifiable academic area, sport and exercise psychology is relatively young, emerging as a subdiscipline within physical education in the 1960s. Sport psychology emerged in the 1970s, and exercise psychology began to develop in the 1980s. Still, from the classical times, through the early roots around 100 years ago, through the development over the last 50 years, to today’s expansive academic discipline, sport psychology and exercise psychology have always been connected. This entry focuses on the history of the exercise psychology side of the disciplinary area that might better be termed psychology of physical activity.
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Jack Rejeski and Lawrence R. Brawley were first to formally define and delimit exercise psychology in 1988 as “the application of the educational, scientific, and professional contributions of psychology to the promotion, explanation, maintenance, and enhancement of behaviors related to physical work capacity.” A few years later, Rejeski and A. Thompson suggested a slightly broader scope by substituting physical fitness for physical work capacity. Today, most scholars who might adopt the exercise psychology label would take an even broader approach and substitute healthrelated physical activity. As the following historical review suggests, health-related physical activity could well describe the emphasis in the early roots stage of sport and exercise psychology 100 years ago. As the discipline developed, sport psychology narrowed to focus on competitive sport performance, and subsequently, exercise psychology split off to connect with exercise science and focus on physical fitness. It should be noted that the sport psychology–exercise psychology separation is a North American development. International sport psychology has maintained the sport psychology title but gradually incorporated more exercise and fitness topics since the 1980s. With more recent rapid growth and expansion of research and practice, the sport psychology–exercise psychology categorization does not capture the rich diversity of topics, populations, outcomes, contexts, perspectives, and approaches within the psychology of physical activity today.
Early Roots: Late 1800s to Early 20th Century
Psychology and kinesiology (then physical education) both began to organize as academic disciplines over 100 years ago, and that early work includes evidence of the psychology of physical activity. Scholars who have described the history of sport and exercise psychology have noted the words of G. Stanley Hall, founding president of the American Psychological Association, who clearly connected physical activity with psychology in his 1908 statement in the Proceedings of the National Education Association that physical education makes “the intellect, feelings and will more vigorous, sane, supple and resourceful” (p. 1015). Similarly in 1899, William James wrote about the importance of the “well-trained and vigorous body” for a “well-trained and vigorous mind” and explicitly highlighted the importance for men and women alike. Hall’s and James’s statements portend some current exercise psychology topics, such as the role of exercise in mental health, and influence of exercise on cognitive performance.
Many sport and exercise psychology texts cite Norman Triplett’s 1898 study of social influence and performance as a widely recognized early contribution. Triplett observed that cyclists seemed motivated to perform better with social influence (pacing machine, competition), and devised an experiment to test his ideas. Other early scholars from both psychology and physical education espoused psychological benefits of physical education and conducted isolated studies, including George W. Fitz of Harvard, who conducted experiments on the speed and accuracy of motor responses in the late 1800s.
Sport and Exercise Psychology: 1920s–1940s
The pioneering sport psychology work of the 1920s to the 1940s is discussed in more detail in the entry “History of Sport Psychology.” Coleman Griffith was a prolific researcher who established a lab at the University of Illinois and published widely. Although Griffith’s applied work with athletes is most often cited, he actually was more concerned with developing the research and knowledge base. In his 1930 article, “A Lab for Research on Athletics,” he noted the abundance of anecdotal reports and explicitly called for a more scientific and experimental approach to psychological issues such as skill acquisition and the effects of emotions on performance. Griffith clearly connected sport and exercise. He closed the 1930 article with a list of 25 specific topics that might be investigated in his lab. Notably, that list included several topics that we might now call exercise psychology, although Griffith clearly did not make that distinction. The first topic listed was the relation between physical exercise and learning, and the list included effect of exercise on length of life and resistance to disease, the nature of sleep among athletes, photographic analysis of muscle coordination during fear, sex differences in motor skill tests, and effects of nicotine and other toxins on learning—to name just a few. Not only did Griffith merge topics that many today separate into sport and exercise, he included motor skills, coordination, and development and covered a range of topics that fit into the psychology of physical activity.
Around the same time that Griffith was working in the United States, Robert Werner Schulte in Germany and Avksenty Cezarevich Puni in Russia were developing sport psychology labs and active research programs. Although both clearly identified their pioneering work as sport psychology, like Griffith, their research often included topics such as exercise and memory that could be considered exercise psychology.
H. McCloy, one of the early scholars bringing research and a scientific perspective to physical education during Griffith’s time, explicitly called for an end to debates on of the physical versus through the physical, which reflect the old mind– body dualism. According to McCloy, mind and body cannot be separated. As McCloy understood, mind and body are connected, of and through the physical are connected, and sport and exercise are connected. The dualism of sport psychology versus exercise psychology is artificial and inaccurate. The full range of physical activities and related issues, including positive health, youth development, life skills, quality of life, and lifestyle physical activity, belong in psychology of physical activity. In his own pioneering research, McCloy investigated character building through physical education as well as his many studies of motor skills and development, topics that fall within a psychology of physical activity.
From Griffith’s and McCloy’s time through the late 1960s when an identifiable specialization emerged, sustained programs were non-existent. After World War II, several scholars developed research programs in motor behavior that incorporated sport and exercise psychology topics, but research was sporadic.
Emergence of Sport and Exercise Psychology as an Academic Discipline: 1950s–1970s
Despite the innovative work during the first half of the 20th century, sport and exercise psychology did not emerge as an identifiable field until the late 1960s, when several individuals, typically in physical education departments, developed research programs, graduate courses, and eventually, specialized organizations and publications. Notably, these emerging programs and scholars were housed in physical education (now kinesiology).
The International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) formed and held the first International Congress of Sport Psychology in Rome in 1965. The ISSP, and international sport psychology, was more closely connected to applied psychology and performance enhancement than in North America, but exercise psychology can be found even in the early development stages. For example, the proceedings of the second ISSP congress in 1968 include several papers on emotional health, and another large section of papers on the child and physical activity. Specific papers included “Physical Activity Attitudes of MiddleAged Males” by Dorothy V. Harris, and “Drug Therapy and Physical Performance in Emotionally Disturbed Children” by William P. Morgan, as well as several papers on motor behavior that do not clearly fall into sport or exercise psychology but fit within psychology of physical activity. The inclusion of exercise and physical activity, as well as motor behavior, is not unusual, and around the world, sport psychology is typically understood as including all forms of sport, exercise, and physical activity.
As international sport psychology was organizing, North American scholars also began to organize, and the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA) was officially incorporated in 1967. The organization of NASPSPA reflected the overlapping of sport and exercise psychology and motor behavior in the 1960s and 1970s, with subareas of motor learning, motor development, and social psychology of physical activity (now the sport and exercise psychology area).
As graduate programs and organizations developed, research expanded and sport and exercise psychologists developed specialized publications. The International Journal of Sport Psychology began publishing in 1970. The Journal of Sport Psychology (JSP) appeared in 1979 (Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, since 1988) and was immediately recognized, as it is today, as the leading publication outlet for sport and exercise psychology research.
Development of Sport Psychology and Exercise Psychology: 1980s–2000
From the 1970s through the 1990s, sport and exercise psychology gradually became the largest and most diverse of the three areas within NASPSPA. Rainer Martens’s 1975 text, Social Psychology and Physical Activity, reflects the content and orientation of those early years. Major psychological theories framed the content; most supporting research was from psychology; and the sport psychology work cited seldom involved sport (or exercise), but more often involved laboratory experiments with motor tasks. Martens also clearly described physical activity as an inclusive term, not limited to competitive sport, but encompassing varied forms of movement in a wide range of settings.
Separation of Sport Psychology and Exercise Psychology
Sport and exercise psychology from 1975 to 2000 was characterized by narrowing and separating. As noted, in North America the field began as social psychology and physical activity. Soon, the academic focus shifted, and in the 1970s and 1980s, the field became more sport specific. Sport psychology (exercise was not part of the label or the scope) began to narrow its focus and shifted away from social influence toward psychology of the individual. Before 1980, application largely meant physical education; but with the 1980s, it came to imply psychological skills training with elite competitive athletes. Following a NASPSPA vote to include only research presentations at the conference, a group split off to form a new organization focused on applied sport psychology. October 1985 marked the beginning of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology, shortened to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) in 2006. As summarized in the first issue of the AAASP Newsletter in 1986, “AAASP provides a forum for individuals interested in research, theory development, and application of psychological principles in sport and exercise.” From the beginning, however, AASP meetings and publications have been dominated by the focus on competitive sport with little attention to exercise or physical activity. Meanwhile, NASPSPA maintained its research focus, including research on exercise and physical activity.
International sport psychology, reflected in ISSP and the European Federation of Sport Psychology (FEPSAC) which was formed in 1969, began with an emphasis on sport and competitive athletes, and thus did not experience such a dramatic narrowing and separation. Instead, international sport psychology maintained its emphasis on sport and continued to develop applied programs for athletes, often within psychology.
Emergence of Exercise Psychology
Just as some scholars chose to split off to focus on applied sport psychology, others (a smaller number) shifted to align more closely with exercise science and focus on psychology of exercise and fitness. Several exercise psychology sources refer to the fitness craze of the 1970s and 1980s as a key factor in the growing interest in exercise psychology. Activities such as aerobics, jogging, and weight training gained more popularity, and the fitness industry grew to meet that interest. NASPSPA and the JSP concentrated on strong research and maintained connections with exercise and motor behavior. In 1988, JSP added exercise to the title, becoming the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, and more explicitly sought research on health-oriented exercise as well as sport.
The American Psychological Association (APA) organized an interest group, and in 1986, Division 47—on Exercise and Sport Psychology—became a formal division of APA. Although many in APA were interested in applying psychology in competitive sport, it is notable that the group highlighted exercise in the division name. William P. Morgan, a key leader in the emerging exercise psychology research was the first president of Division 47. Morgan, who spent most of his career at Wisconsin, might well be considered the father of exercise psychology. Certainly Morgan and his many students, particularly Rod Dishman, conducted much of the early research in the 1980s and 1990s and set the standard for continuing exercise psychology research. Like Morgan, most exercise psychology researchers were aligned with kinesiology programs, often collaborated with exercise physiology researchers, and adopted similar research approaches. For example, studies might investigate the influence of type, duration, and intensity of exercise on psychological outcomes such as mood state. On the other side of the exercise–psychology relationship, the role of psychological factors in exercise adherence was an early exercise psychology topic. That early research was connected with the medical model that dominated exercise science at the time. As exercise psychology research expanded, scholars brought in more psychological theories and turned to the biopsychosocial model that dominates health behavior research. However, the social aspect was largely ignored at that time, and remains understudied today.
Psychology of Physical Activity in the 21st Century
The psychology of physical activity continued to expand rapidly though the 1990s and into the 21st century, and in many ways became more diverse, for example, including exercisers as well as athletes and a larger settings and psychological perspectives. However, rather than encompassing diverse participants, settings, and issues, sport and exercise psychology researchers, organizations, and programs split into separate, and often intentionally separated, subareas with little connection to each other. Moreover, the separate factions tended to be elite with little connection to the traditional physical education base or wider physical activity contexts. The sport psychology faction focused on elite athletes. Meanwhile, the exercise psychology faction moved to exercise physiology labs with a focus on young, fit exercisers.
The editor who initiated the name change to Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Diane Gill, also coauthor of this entry, fully supports the exercise psychology movement but firmly believes the sport psychology–exercise psychology split is artificial and destructive. Psychology of physical activity is more encompassing and more appropriate for this area. Stuart Biddle and Reinhard Fuchs clearly took a psychology of physical activity approach despite the title of their 2009 chapter, “Exercise Psychology: A View From Europe.” After describing the expansion from sport to sport and exercise psychology in the 1980s, and citing the early definition of exercise psychology as referring to “behaviors related to physical work capacity,” they clearly defined the scope and major issues in the field as psychology of physical activity. They referred to physical activity throughout their excellent article, and the few times they cited exercise psychology, the term was in quotes.
Again, the separation of sport and exercise is not so dramatic at the international level. Rather than develop a separate exercise psychology, international sport psychology has gradually incorporated more research and issues related to exercise and physical activity, particularly in the 21st century. Notably, ISSP, the first and still dominant international organization, changed its official journal to the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology in 2002 explicitly recognizing the expansion of sport psychology into the psychology of exercise and physical activity and health issues. As Gershon Tenenbaum and Dieter Hackfort (2003) noted in their opening editorial statement,
The IJSEP encourages researchers and practitioners from all the sub-disciplines of sport and exercise psychology to share their contributions and views through this outlet. It is through integration of the specific knowledge gained by scholars in different fields, and through sharing of different views that our domain will benefit. (p. 8)
Similarly, the European FEPSAC and newer (1989) Asian South Pacific Association of Sport Psychology have maintained the sport psychology title but increasingly incorporated exercise, physical activity, health research, and programs.
Today, the psychology of physical activity has matured and moved in many directions. Despite the multiple facets and factions in the 21st century, there are promising directions and many connections. During the 1980s and 1990s, attention shifted to competitive sport and applied work with athletes. Attention has now shifted back to exercise, meeting the public concern for health and fitness with increased research and applied emphasis on physical activity and health promotion. Both sport psychology and exercise psychology have moved toward a broader psychology of physical activity. Sport psychologists investigate mental health and eating behaviors of participants, stress and injury, and adherence to rehabilitation exercise as well as sport performance. Exercise psychologists have expanded beyond fitness training to consider the relationship of physical activity to quality of life among older adults and clinical populations and the role of reducing sedentary behavior in health. Some researchers focus on exercise parameters and adopt methodologies of exercise science. Others adopt public health models and approaches with a wide range of target populations to investigate lifestyle physical activity and psychological outcomes ranging from cognitive performance to quality of life. In many ways, we have returned to the mind– body connection, albeit with a wider range of measures, models, and methods. Traces of our roots and development are evident, but today’s psychology of physical activity is multifaceted and diverse in research and practice and truly global.
The history of exercise psychology is inextricably intertwined with the history of sport psychology and best understood within a broader psychology of physical activity perspective. Although relatively young as an identifiable area, we can trace our roots back over 100 years with early connections between psychology and physical education. Sport and exercise psychology emerged in the late 1960’s and expanded rapidly during the 1970s, creating a knowledge base and specialized publications. During the 1980s, with sport psychology narrowly focusing on applied research and competitive sport, some scholars turned attention to the relationship between exercise and psychological factors. Exercise psychology has continued to grow and expand into new populations and contexts, and today is more appropriately considered as the psychology of physical activity. Today’s global psychology of physical activity is multifaceted and diverse in research and practice, while continuing to address mind–body connections and the role of physical activity in health and well-being.
- Biddle, S. J. H., & Fuchs, R. (2009). Exercise psychology: A view from Europe. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10, 410–419.
- Buckworth, J., Dishman, R. K., O’Connor, P. J., & Tomporowski, P. D. (2013). Exercise psychology (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Gauvin, L., & Spence, J. C. (1995). Psychological research on exercise and fitness: Current issues and future challenges. The Sport Psychologist, 9, 434–448.
- Gill, D. L. (2009). Social psychology and physical activity: Back to the future. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 80, 685–695.
- Tenenbaum, G., & Hackfort, D. (2003). A new journal for the international perspective on sport and exercise psychology. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1, 7–8.
- Weiss, M. R., & Gill, D. L. (2005). What goes around comes around: Re-emerging themes in sport and exercise psychology. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 76(Suppl. 2), S71–S87.