The first self-aware discovery I made as an adult transitioning out of extended college adolescence was that exercise made me happy. I discovered it accidentally at first, and marveled at the direct, immediate correlation between the days I exercised and the days when I’d think, “Today was a good day.”
The wonder quickly gave way to slight irritation, because the pleasant mood boost required sometimes unpleasant physical exertion. Sometimes I gave it up entirely, for months or years, and only lapsed back into exercise out of desperation. But I always lapsed back into it, because I knew that it was the one thing guaranteed to make me less grumpy and more relaxed.
What I didn’t know back then was that exercise doesn’t just have that effect on someone’s personality for one day; the positive effects of exercise last for decades, according to Business Insider:
You might not be surprised to hear about the harmful health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, but perhaps less obvious is that physical inactivity is also associated with unwelcome changes in personality over time. Previous research has documented these effects over periods of four and ten years. A new paper in the Journal of Research in Personality has extended this, finding that greater physical inactivity at baseline is associated with deterioration in personality two decades later, even after accounting for any differences in initial personality.
As the researchers point out, there is an upside: the findings suggest that even a moderate increase in your activity levels today could have positive implications for your personality decades from now.
The research was combined from three long-running, statistically significant studies from people nationwide, and the findings consistently revealed that baseline physical inactivity directly correlated with a significant deterioration in personality decades later.
Specifically, researchers found that the more sedentary a person was at the study’s outset, the sharper the decline was in their conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and openness two decades later. Surprisingly, the researchers also found a direct link between sedentary lifestyles and late-life neuroticism. Basically, not exercising today will make you a grumpy, neurotic miser — no matter who you are or what your life is like.
That’s right, the study controlled so effectively for demographic and life factors that the effect of physical activity (or the lack thereof) on personality change was as great or greater than the personality changes stemming from demographic factors and even disease burden. So not exercising could literally have a more detrimental effect on your personality than living in poverty, or suffering from an autoimmune disease.
I can’t say for sure that my haphazard exercise routine during the early years of motherhood has made me a happier person now, but I can say with certainty that I fully expect to be the most agreeable, extraverted, and open person ever in 20 years.
– Calah Alexander | aletiea.org