History Of Exercise Psychology

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

history-of-exercise-psychology-psychology-of-sportPsychology  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.


  1. Biddle, S. J. H., & Fuchs, R. (2009). Exercise psychology: A view from Europe. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10, 410–419.
  2. Buckworth, J., Dishman, R. K., O’Connor, P. J., & Tomporowski, P. D. (2013). Exercise psychology (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  3. Gauvin, L., & Spence, J. C. (1995). Psychological research on exercise and fitness: Current issues and future challenges. The Sport Psychologist, 9, 434–448.
  4. Gill, D. L. (2009). Social psychology and physical activity: Back to the future. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 80, 685–695.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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