Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

Brown: The Exercise-affect-adherence Pathway

Considering the relationship between physical activity and both physical and mental health, the fact that only half of U.S. adults meet national physical activity guidelines represents a significant public health challenge. Previous research, including that by Dr. David Williams, Associate Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the Brown University School of Public Health, has suggested that, for many people, exercise leads to a negative affective response, and in turn, reduced likelihood of future exercise.

Lee, Harold

[Photo: Mr. Harold Lee]

The purpose of this paper, led by Mr. Harold Lee, a doctoral student in the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown University, was to examine this exercise-affect-adherence relationship from an evolutionary perspective.

The authors argue that the low rates of physical exercise in the general population are a function of the evolved human tendency to avoid unnecessary physical exertion. This tendency evolved because it allowed our ancestors to conserve energy for physical activities that had an immediate adaptive utility such as pursuing prey, escaping predators, and engaging in social and reproductive behaviors. Consequently, the previously observed negative affective response to exercise is an evolved psychological mechanism through which humans avoid unnecessary energy expenditure.

These findings are not only important because they ground the exercise-affect-adherence pathway in an evolutionary perspective, but also because this novel perspective serves as a basis for constructing new strategies to promote physical activity. The authors suggest a two-pronged approach to promote physical activity based on this perspective: first, to promote exercise and other physical activities that are perceived to have an immediate purpose, and second, to instill greater perceived purpose for a wider range of physical activities. Based on the evolutionary perspective presented in this paper, these strategies are more likely to result in more positive (or less negative) affective responses to exercise, better adherence to exercise programs, and higher rates of overall PA.

This study was published in Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 7, 2016.

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