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Exercise and personality

This is an excerpt from Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology 7th Edition With Web Study Guide by Robert Weinberg & Daniel Gould.

Sport psychologists have investigated the relationship between exercise and personality. We will begin by briefly summarizing the research on the relationship between the Big 5 personality traits and physical activity involvement. The relationship between exercise and two personality dispositions, type A behavior and self-concept, will then be briefly reviewed.

Big 5 Personality Correlates of Physical Activity

The relationship between physical activity involvement and the Big 5 personality traits of neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness has been examined in a variety of studies. A meta-analysis of 33 of these studies revealed that extraversion and conscientiousness are positively related to physical activity involvement, while neuroticism is negatively related (Rhodes & Smith, 2006). This makes sense as people who are more sociable or outgoing and more self-disciplined and achievement oriented are more likely to exercise, while those who are depressed and anxious are not. However, similar to the relationship between personality measures and athletic involvement, these associations are relatively small and mostly correlational. Few cause-effect relationships have been established. This has lead reviewers to conclude that “behavioral action is unlikely to arise directly from personality” and the greatest contribution will come from looking at how other personality constructs interact with environment considerations to produce behavior (Rhodes & Smith, 2006, p. 963).


In her best-selling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth (2016) introduced the notion of grit, an important personality characteristic related to the pursuit of goals in many fields. Grit is defined as “. . . trait-level perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (Duckworth & Quinn, 2009). It involves maintaining interest and effort while strenuously working toward goals and challenges despite facing adversity, failure, and slow progress. Gritty individuals exhibit stamina when working toward achievement and maintain their effort over years.

A valid and reliable measure of grit has been developed, and in addition to an overall scale score, two subscales are assessed: consistency of one's interest and perseverance of effort (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews & Kelly, 2007; Duckworth & Quinn, 2009). Duckworth and her colleagues studied a variety of populations in a variety of settings and found that within those settings, grittier individuals are less likely to drop out of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and more likely to stay married, spend time practicing spelling, and further their education (Duckworth, 2016).

While Duckworth discusses the importance of grit to sport success, only a few studies have begun to explore this relationship. In a study examining the predictive validity of grit in predicting West Point cadet attrition and performance, grit was found to predict physical and athletic performance (Kelly, Matthews, & Bartone, 2014). In a study of high- versus low-grit elite youth soccer players, Larkin, O'Connor, and Williams (2016) found that gritty players engaged in significantly more training, competition, play, and indirect soccer involvement. The grittier players were also found to perform better than their less gritty counterparts on perceptual-cognitive skills tests. Although additional studies are needed, initial evidence points to the importance of grit in predicting athlete and exerciser performance and motivation.

Type A Behavior

The type A behavior pattern is characterized by a strong sense of urgency, an excess of competitive drive, and an easily aroused hostility. The antithesis of the type A behavior pattern is called type B. Initially, a link was found between type A behavior and increased incidence of cardiovascular disease. Later, it was suspected that the anger-hostility component of the type A construct is the most significant disease-related characteristic. Although the causes of type A behavior have not been conclusively determined, considerable evidence points to the sociocultural environment, such as parental expectations of high standards in performance, as the likely origin (Girdano, Everly, & Dusek, 1990).

Early efforts to modify type A behavior through exercise interventions have had mixed results. One positive study showed that a 12-week aerobics program not only was associated with reductions in type A behavior but also helped participants significantly reduce cardiovascular reactivity to mental stress (Blumenthal et al., 1988). Thus, changing type A behavior patterns through exercise could result in positive health benefits.


Exercise appears to also have a positive relationship with self-concept (Biddle, 1995; Marsh & Redmayne, 1994; Sonstroem, 1984; Sonstroem, Harlow, & Josephs, 1994). Sonstroem (1984) suggested that these changes in self-concept might be associated with the perception of improved fitness rather than with actual changes in physical fitness. Although studies so far have not proved that changes in physical fitness produce changes in self-concept, exercise programs seem to lead to significant increases in self-esteem, especially with subjects who initially show low self-esteem. For example, Martin, Waldron, McCabe, and Yun (2009) found that girls participating in the Girls on the Run program had positive changes in their global self-esteem and in appearance, peer, physical, and running self-concepts.

Parallel to the sport personality research, the exercise and self-concept research has shown that it is best to think of self-concept or self-esteem not only as a general trait (global self-esteem) but also as one that includes numerous content-specific dimensions, such as social self-concept, academic self-concept, and physical self-concept. As you might expect, research shows that exercise participation has the greatest effect on the physical dimension of self-concept (Fox, 1997; Marsh & Sonstroem, 1995; Spence, McGannon, & Poon, 2005). This relationship is discussed further in chapter 18.