Physical Activity and Personality Traits
Summary and Keywords
The physical, psychological, and economic benefits of regular moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity are well substantiated. Unfortunately, few people in developed countries engage in enough physical activity to reap these benefits. Thus, a strong theoretical understanding of what factors are associated with physical activity is warranted in order to create effective and targeted interventions. Social/ecological approaches to understanding physical activity demonstrate the breadth of correlates that encompass intra-individual, inter-individual, environmental, and policy-related variables in physical activity performance. One longstanding intrapersonal correlate of interest is the relationship between personality traits—enduring individual-level differences in tendencies to show consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions—and physical activity.
Personality trait theories are broad in focus and differ in terms of proposed etiology, yet much of the recent research in physical activity has been with super traits in the five-factor model: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Meta-analytic reviews suggest that conscientiousness and extraversion are positively associated with physical activity with some mixed evidence for a small negative relationship with neuroticism. The effect appears to be most pronounced with vigorous physical activities and less so with lower-intensity lifestyle activities and shows mixed evidence for whether proximal social cognitive variables (intention, self-efficacy) can mediate this relationship. More specific sub-traits show that facets of extraversion (excitement-seeking, activity) or conscientiousness (self-discipline, industriousness/ambition) have larger and more specific associations with particular types of physical activity or moderate key processes like the intention-behavior gap. Furthermore, personality appears to be linked to higher-intensity and adventure activities more than lower-intensity leisure physical activities. Contemporary longitudinal assessments of the bi-directionality of personality and physical activity have begun to advance our understanding of interconnectedness. Interventions that target personality traits to improve physical activity have been relatively understudied but hold some promise when used in tandem with larger theoretical approaches and behavioral change strategies.
Physical Activity and Health
Chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, are the leading causes of death in the early 21st century, accounting for nearly half of all deaths in industrialized countries (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013). In addition to the devastating effects on one’s health and life, chronic diseases have enormous social and economic ramifications like high workplace absenteeism, familial distress, and high cost burdens due to treatment (Collins et al., 2005; Mariotto, Robin Yabroff, Shao, Feuer, & Brown, 2011; Mascie-Taylor & Karim, 2003; Walker, 2007). The factors that contribute to the onset of chronic diseases are complex and multifaceted, involving environmental, genetic, and behavioral antecedents (Kujala, 2011; McQueen & Siegrist, 1982; Mulle & Vaccarino, 2013; Neylon et al., 2013). Behavioral factors, in particular, are responsible for much explanation of most chronic diseases and conditions.
One of the most important behavioral health practices is the performance of regular physical activity. Physical activity, performed for approximately 150 minutes per week in the moderate-to-vigorous-intensity range, has been established as critical in reducing the risk of most major chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, several cancers, and musculoskeletal disorders (Lee et al., 2012; Warburton, Charlesworth, Ivey, Nettlefold, & Bredin, 2010; Warburton, Nicol, & Bredin, 2006). Further, regular physical activity has also been linked to the prevention and rehabilitation of psychological disorders like depression and anxiety (Asmundson et al., 2013; Mammen & Faulkner, 2013).
Despite the extremely impressive scope of health benefits, very few people in most developed nations engage in this recommended level of physical activity (Hallal et al., 2012). For example, recent population-level assessments of physical activity using accelerometry suggest that over 80% of North Americans do not meet the guidelines for public health (Colley et al., 2011; Troiano et al., 2008), and these low engagement rates of physical activity are also echoed in other countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013; U.K. Health & Social Care Information Centre, 2009). Clearly, the promotion of physical activity is important, and effective methods of promotion are needed.
Physical activity is a complex behavior with antecedents ranging from biological and genetic factors to environmental and policy aspects (Bryan, Hutchison, Seals, & Allen, 2007; Sallis & Owen, 1997). One aspect at the individual end of this spectrum that has been the subject of considerable research is the role of personality traits (Allen & Laborde, 2014). Overall, personality has many definitions, but most include the concepts that traits are enduring and consistent individual-level differences in tendencies show consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions (McCrae et al., 2000). Furthermore, personality is theorized to have a biological and genetic basis (Gray, 1991; Zuckerman, 2005), while the expression of traits is culturally conditioned (Eysenck, 1970; Funder, 2001; McCrae et al., 2000).
Contemporary personality trait research and theory have followed a common higher-order trait taxonomy that acts as a determinant of lower-order sub-traits with greater specificity and detail. This approach has helped bridge the gap between specific sub-traits and more general factors that created a disparate field of study in early personality trait psychology (Digman, 1990; Goldberg, 1993).The leading model of trait personality is known as the five-factor model (McCrae & Costa, 2008), although basic structures from two factors (Eysenck, 1970) to much higher levels of trait specificity (Paunonen & Jackson, 2000) are also advocated by some theorists. Furthermore, even among leading five-factor model researchers, a sub-trait approach to understanding these higher-order traits is generally advocated. For example, Costa and McCrae (1992, 1995) suggest a five-factor model that is comprised of 30 sub-traits.
The five-factor model of personality suggests that neuroticism (e.g., the tendency to be emotionally unstable, anxious, self-conscious, and vulnerable), extraversion (e.g., the tendency to be sociable, assertive, energetic, seek excitement, and experience positive affect), openness to experience/intellect (e.g., the tendency to be perceptive, creative, reflective, and appreciate fantasy and aesthetics), agreeableness (e.g., the tendency to be kind, cooperative, altruistic, trustworthy, and generous), and conscientiousness (e.g., the tendency to be ordered, dutiful, self-disciplined, and achievement-oriented) are the basic factors of personality structure. These common-factor taxonomies are thought to represent the basic building blocks of personality, and subsequently cause the expression of more specific sub-traits, which often differ even among five-factor theorists (Goldberg et al., 2006; McCrae & Costa, 1995). For example, individuals high in extraversion may express this higher-order trait through excitement seeking, sociability, a positive outlook, or energetic activity depending on an outlet that is feasible and socially conditioned by one’s environment. An interaction among higher-order taxonomies may also cause the expression of traits of interest. For example, type A behavior (Jenkins, 1976) may be a combination of high neuroticism, high extraversion, low agreeableness, and high conscientiousness.
Relationship between Personality and Physical Activity
Research on personality and physical activity has spanned over 45 years. While some personality research has been focused more on sport performance (Allen, Greenlees, & Jones, 2013; Eysenck, Nias, & Cox, 1982), three meta-analyses (Rhodes & Smith, 2006; Sutin et al., 2016; Wilson & Dishman, 2015) and a systematic review (Rhodes & Pfaeffli, 2012) have been conducted to appraise the relationship between the five-factor traits and physical activity. Rhodes and Smith (2006) examined 35 samples and found small positive associations between extraversion (r = .23) and conscientiousness (r = .20) and physical activity and a small negative relationship with neuroticism (r = –.11). They used a narrative procedure to evaluate potential moderators of these findings, concluding that sex, age, and study design did not appear to affect the findings, but they did suggest that European studies had a lower association of extraversion and physical activity compared to North American studies. Rhodes and Pfaeffli (2012) updated this prior review with nine additional studies and concluded with similar results.
Wilson and Dishman (2015) recently conducted a meta-analysis of 64 studies on the application of the five-factor model and physical activity and Sutin and colleagues (2016) also completed a more selected meta-analysis of 16 population samples. Similar to Rhodes and Smith, both meta-analyses found positive associations between extraversion (both r = .11) and conscientiousness (both r = .10) and physical activity in the small-effect size range. All other associations were within the trivial-effect size classification (Cohen, 1992), although neuroticism did have a significant negative association (both r = –.07), and openness to experience was on the borderline of a positive association on the meta-analysis by Sutin and colleagues (r = .09). Design characteristics of the studies were formally examined as moderators of the effects, and while there were some significant differences noted in Wilson and Dishman (2015), almost all of the deviations were not in a meaningful effect size range (Cohen, 1992). The exception was the association between conscientiousness and physical activity measurement, where conscientiousness was linked more to the frequency of activity (r = .21) than other types of assessment such as general quantity (r = .06) or volume (r = .07). Taken together, physical activity has a reliable yet small positive association with extraversion and conscientiousness. Neuroticism has a negative relationship with physical activity, but the association may not be practically relevant. For the most part, the evidence suggests that these relationships are invariant to demographic characteristics and study design in terms of practical relevance.
Lower-Order Personality Traits and Physical Activity
While higher-order conceptual understanding of personality and behavior is useful to appraise general associations, underlying facets or specific traits may help define the most precise relationships between personality and specific behaviors (Costa & McCrae, 1992). Rhodes and Pfaeffli (2012) engaged in a systematic review of these facet-level personality traits to ascertain our current understanding of their association with physical activity. The lower-order personality trait review included 29 peer-reviewed studies and 42 samples. The authors noted several single-study examinations of many facet traits but were able to theme the association between physical activity and type A, optimism, industriousness, sociability, and activity.
The review showed that type A (i.e., a blend of competitiveness and hostility with agitated behavior) was associated with physical activity in the small-to-medium-effect size range, while optimism (i.e., generalized expectations of positive outcomes) and sociability (i.e., a preference for the company of others and social situations) were not (Rhodes & Pfaeffli, 2012). The most robust correlates of physical activity, however, were extraversion’s activity trait and conscientiousness’s industriousness/ambition trait. Activity represents a disposition toward a fast lifestyle, high energy, fast talking, and being busy as opposed to a more laissez faire disposition. While the facet is organized under extraversion, it has also been suggested as a sub-trait of conscientiousness due to the organizational properties and goal achievement necessary for this trait to manifest (Costa & McCrae, 1995). Rhodes and Pfaeffli (2012) found that all studies measuring this trait showed correlations with physical activity in the medium-to-large range. Further, the three direct tests that compared the predictive capacity of activity against general extraversion showed the superiority of the activity trait in explaining physical activity (Adams & Mowen, 2005; Rhodes & Courneya, 2003; Rhodes, Courneya, & Jones, 2002). Thus, activity appears to be the underlying driver of the relationship between extraversion and physical activity. The authors speculated that activity makes regular physical activity a natural behavior of choice given its energy and organizational/self-regulatory demands (Rhodes & Pfaeffli, 2012).
While facet-level explorations of five-factor trait structures have favored the activity trait, industriousness-ambition (also labeled self-discipline in some cases), a sub-facet of conscientiousness, has also shown significant association with physical activity (Rhodes & Pfaeffli, 2012). The trait comprises aspects of achievement-striving and self-discipline, and a natural extension of this type of disposition could be regular physical activity, given its challenge and self-regulatory barriers. It may also represent the central mediator for associations between conscientiousness and physical activity. Rhodes and Pfaeffli (2012) pointed out, however, that the association between industriousness-ambition and physical activity does not seem to hold constant once activity is controlled for in multivariate analyses. Thus, much of the aspects of conscientiousness and industriousness-ambition that relates to physical activity is likely accounted for within the activity trait.
Since the review by Rhodes and Pfaeffli (2012), some research has investigated other facet traits and their associations with physical activity. People with “distressed” or type D personalities, which are associated with tendencies to experience higher levels of negative affect and high social inhibition (Denollet, 1998), were found to participate in significantly less physical activity than non-type D personalities (Borkoles, Polman, & Levy, 2010). The facet trait grit, which is the tendency to persevere and be passionate about long-term goals (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007), was found to correlate highly with adherence to a moderate and high-intensity exercise program, but not to a low-intensity exercise program (Reed, Pritschet, & Cutton, 2012). Similar to grit, Gerber et al. (2012) found that mental toughness was associated with meeting physical activity guidelines for adolescents.
Personality and Specific Physical Activity Behaviors
Physical activity is a collection of behaviors that involve movement, all with different skill requirements and energy-expenditure demands (Ainsworth et al., 2011; Pate et al., 1995). Thus, personality would conceivably link to certain physical activity behaviors more than others. Five studies were outlined in the Rhodes and Smith review (2006) as examining personality with a particular mode or modes of physical activity. They found that extraversion was positively associated with aerobic activity, while neuroticism was negatively associated with this form of activity. Commensurate with this appraisal, Howard et al. (1987), in a more focused assessment of physical activity modes, found that extraverts were more likely to engage in swimming, aerobic conditioning, dancing, and tennis than introverts. In contrast, introverts were more inclined to engage in gardening and home improvement. The results of this study, however, showed no associations between extraversion and walking, jogging, golf, and cycling. More recently, Rhodes et al. (2007) replicated and extended these results by showing no relationship with neuroticism, extraversion, or conscientiousness and walking. Rhodes and Pfaeffli (2012), in their review of lower-order facets, noted that type A was related to leisure activities but not household activity (Eason, Masse, Tortolero, & Kelder, 2002).
Taken together, the results support more robust relationships between personality and physical activity among behaviors that require more extreme energy requirements, competitiveness, and skill. In line with this theorizing, considerable research has explored adventure physical activities and personality, particularly on the trait of sensation-seeking. The term “adventure physical activities” describes physical activities that are challenging, out of the ordinary, and usually associated with higher levels of risk. One of the earliest examinations in this area was skydiving, where Hymbaugh and Garrett (1974) reported higher levels of sensation-seeking scores for skydivers compared to a normative control group. Indeed, a more recent study showed that skydivers score higher on sensation-seeking compared to pathological gamblers and other normative controls (Myrseth, Tverå, Hagatun, & Lindgren, 2012). Allison et al. (2012) found that, on average, the participants who scored higher on sensation-seeking had lower levels of physiological arousal at baseline. However, all participants had similar levels of physiological arousal during skydiving. The authors concluded that this phenomenon might describe the mechanism by which the sensation-seeking trait drives individuals to engage in high-risk behaviors. Specifically, it is possible that individuals with strong sensation-seeking traits look for additional opportunities to reach their optimal arousal levels. Other studies found similarly high levels of sensation-seeking personalities when comparing mountain- and rock-climbing participants to normative control groups and even athletes in team sports (Robinson, 1985). Surprisingly, Llewellyn and Sanchez (2008) found that higher levels of sensation-seeking and impulsiveness were associated with a reduction in risk-taking behaviors in rock climbers. Sensation-seeking and impulsivity are also suggested to be responsible for motivating participants to choose certain adventure physical activities like snowboarding and skiing (Maher, Thomson, & Carlson, 2015; Ruedl, Abart, Ledochowski, Burtscher, & Kopp, 2012). Specific personality traits, such as rash impulsiveness, which describes a reduced consideration of behavioral consequences, may play a role in determining how much risk is taken within the physical activity that a person has chosen. Thomson and Carlson (2014) found that certain aspects of impulsivity (i.e., higher levels of reward sensitivity and lower levels of punishment sensitivity) were associated with proficient alpine skiers and snowboarders. However, rash impulsivity was not associated with proficient skiers and snowboarders.
Several authors have found that the personality profiles of scuba divers differed significantly from other adventure physical activities (Coetzee, 2010; Guszkowska & Boldak, 2010; Taylor, O’Toole, Auble, Ryan, & Sherman, 1997). Significantly lower levels of sensation-seeking scores were found in scuba divers compared to skydivers, wake boarders, paragliders, snowboarders, mountain climbers, and even the general population. In addition, Lee and Tseng (2015) found that the higher conscientiousness of scuba divers led to a reduction in risk-taking behaviors. Future research in adventure physical activity personalities should continue to investigate the heterogeneity of personalities between and within adventure activities alluded to by Llewellyn and Sanchez (2008). In addition, an examination of complete personality profiles—such as five-factor facet taxonomies—may be helpful to complement what is known about the sensation-seeking and impulsive personalities of adventure physical activity participants.
Personality and Physical Activity Social Cognition
Personality may affect health through factors such as heightened or lessened physiological responses to stimuli (Wiebe & Smith, 1997), but most research in physical activity has followed an approach that suggests personality affects the quality of one’s health practices. More specifically, personality is hypothesized to affect social cognitions (e.g., perceptions, attitudes, norms, and self-efficacy), habits, and social and environmental access to a behavior, which in turn influence the health behavior itself (Ajzen, 1991; McCrae & Costa, 1995; Rhodes, 2006). The recent review by Rhodes and Pfaeffli (2012) noted 17 studies where social cognitive theories were examined as mediators of personality and physical activity relationships. Most of these studies employed Ajzen’s (1991) theory of planned behavior as the purported mediator. The theory of planned behavior suggests that the proximal determinant of behavior is intention, and this is determined by attitude (overall evaluation of the behavior), subjective norm (perceived social pressure to perform the behavior), and perceived behavioral control (perceived capability to enact the behavior). Ajzen (2006) specifically states that factors external to attitude, subjective norm, and perceived behavioral control, such as personality traits, should be mediated by the theory of planned behavior proper.
Using Cerin and Mackinnon’s (2008) template for assessing mediation, Rhodes and Pfaeffli (2012) found that almost all studies were able to establish a significant relationship between personality and physical activity, that personality was related to the theory of planned behavior constructs (action test), and that these constructs were related to physical activity (conceptual theory test). The final mediation test, however, was only supported in two samples (Bryan & Rocheleau, 2002; Hagan, Rhodes, Hausenblas, & Giacobbi, 2009). In these cases, the activity trait was mediated through attitude and perceived behavioral control (Hagan et al., 2009), and extraversion was mediated through perceived behavioral control (Bryan & Rocheleau, 2002). All other studies supported only partial mediation, as personality had direct effects on physical activity. The finding is interesting because it shows that personality may have another route on behavior beyond intention. Dual-process theories (Deutsch & Strack, 2006), where behavior is a composition of planned “cold” conscious deliberation and “hot” impulsive drives, may help explain these findings with personality. It may be that extraversion, for example, primes or determines impulsive behavior to approach or avoid physical activity independent of initial intentions. The role of these more implicit factors within the physical activity is still in its infancy (Rebar et al., 2016), but personality could potentially act as an antecedent in both aspects of dual-process models.
Personality has also been examined as a moderator of the intention-physical activity relationship. In systematic review of intention-behavior moderators, Rhodes and Dickau (2013) found convincing evidence that those higher in conscientiousness were more likely to follow through with original intentions compared to those low in conscientiousness. Conner and Abraham (2001) were among the first researchers to test this association and theorized that the disposition toward organization and achievement keeps high-conscientiousness individuals from slipping in their original physical activity goals. Rhodes and Dickau (2013) also noted that there was some evidence that extraversion moderated the intention-behavior relationship, with extraverts more likely to follow through on intentions than introverts. Rhodes and colleagues (Rhodes, Courneya, & Hayduk, 2002) have suggested that individuals high in extraversion may facilitate their intentions by gravitating toward active environments than more introverted individuals.
Finally, neuroticism has been evaluated as a moderator of the intention-behavior relationship in three studies (Hoyt, Rhodes, Hausenblas, & Giacobbi, 2009; Rhodes, Courneya, & Hayduk, 2002; Rhodes, Courneya, & Jones, 2005) and in a retrospective assessment of exercise intention and behavior following breast cancer (Rhodes, Courneya, & Bobick, 2001). Of those, two provided evidence for moderation (Hoyt et al., 2009; Rhodes et al., 2001). High neuroticism represents maladaptive feeling states, and it stands to reason that those high in this trait could have more difficulty holding to good physical activity intentions compared to their more emotionally stable counterparts. These mixed findings, along with a limited literature, suggest that more research is required before any definitive conclusions about neuroticisms’ moderation capacity can be drawn.
Conclusions and Future Directions
Personality and physical activity have been frequent areas of research for nearly half a century, but much of this work has been conducted with young adult samples and relatively static designs (Allen & Laborde, 2014). Overall, much of the recent research in physical activity has been with the five-factor model: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Meta-analytic reviews suggest that conscientiousness and extraversion have small positive associations with physical activity, with some mixed evidence for a small negative relationship with neuroticism (Rhodes & Smith, 2006; Wilson & Dishman, 2015). The effect appears to be most pronounced with vigorous physical activities and less with lower-intensity lifestyle activities, but relatively invariant to age and gender. More specific sub-traits show that facets of extraversion (excitement-seeking, activity) or conscientiousness (self-discipline, industriousness/ambition) have larger and more specific associations with particular types of physical activity (Rhodes & Pfaeffli, 2012). The process by which personality affects physical activity is not entirely understood, but some of this covariance may be through engendering more positive attitudes and a sense of control, or by facilitating/inhibiting the intention-behavior relationship (Rhodes & Dickau, 2013; Rhodes & Pfaeffli, 2012).
Although past reviews help to summarize the existing research on personality correlates and behavior, they also pave the way for future directions. Indeed, research with personality and physical activity has remained fairly basic across the last 40 years, focusing largely on bivariate correlations or univariate analyses of variance in cross-sectional or very short prospective designs (Allen & Laborde, 2014). Snapshots of how traits relate to between-person profiles are interesting, but the interconnected relationship between personality and physical activity across time and through periods of change is a relatively unexplored avenue. Early research with these more sophisticated designs, however, has yielded interesting findings. For example, a 40-year longitudinal trial showed that neuroticism and extraversion were predictive of physical activity changes across time, while agreeableness and openness were not (Kern, Reynolds, & Friedman, 2010). Multiple assessments over time also allow for within-person and between-person effects of personality and physical activity. For example, Mõttus and colleagues (2016) showed that while conscientiousness and extraversion predict between-person physical activity, neuroticism differences within-person over time were also predictive of physical activity. Longitudinal designs also allow for an examination of whether physical activity practices shape personality. Personality is often viewed with a genetic basis, but is also seen as culturally conditioned (McCrae & Costa, 1995). Thus, a continued physical activity experience would conceivably have an effect on trait expression. Recent research supports this line of reasoning (Allen, Magee, Vella, & Laborde, in press). For example, regular physical activity has been shown to reduce sub-traits of neuroticism, presumably due to its anxiolytic and antidepressive effect (DiLorenzo et al., 1999). Similarly, a longitudinal studies of personality change in adulthood found that physically active adults declined significantly less on many five-factor traits (conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, and agreeableness) compared to those who were less active (Stephan, Boiché, Canada, & Terracciano, 2014; Stephan, Sutin, & Terracciano, 2014). How these effects may occur requires study, but they may be a mix of psychobiology (lessened cognitive decline) and a more engaged lifestyle.
A move to understanding the role of personality in physical activity promotion is also desperately needed. Unlike social-cognitive or social-environmental variables, a strong correlation between personality and physical activity represents a potentially challenging obstacle and not a target for change. It resembles other intractable correlates of physical activity such as age, disability, and gender. Thus, health promoters need to consider effective interventions for different personality types.
The proposal for personality-matched interventions has appeal, but we have very limited research on this approach at present. Rhodes and Matheson (2008) examined whether a planning intervention among low-conscientiousness individuals could help improve physical activity 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. In contrast, Why and colleagues (Why, Huang, & Sandhu, 2010) 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 here underscore that personality traits may need targeting to help less conscientious individuals. Most recently, Lepri and colleagues (Lepri, Staiano, Shmueli, Pianesi, & Pentland, 2016) showed some evidence for how extraversion and neuroticism may affect the utility of physical activity interventions on mobile phones. Extraverts and those higher on neuroticism were found to increase physical activity under a social-comparison strategy, but not by using peer pressure. A continuation of this research is needed, however, to ascertain the utility of personality-matched interventions.
RER is supported with funds from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.
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