Sitting on your butt and not doing anything has always been a recipe for dying young (exercise is good for you, yo). But according to new research, being a couch potato also could change the type of person you are before your untimely death.
According to Scientific American, Yannick Stephan, a psychologist at the University of Montpellier in France, found a strong link between lack of exercise and declines in character traits. Stephan and his team combined data from The Wisconsin Longitudinal Study and The Midlife in the United States (MIDUS), two large, survey-based studies in which participants had answered questions about their exercise habits and health. “Stephan and his team found that subjects who reported being less active had greater reductions on average in conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness and extroversion — four of the so-called Big Five personality traits — even after accounting for differences in baseline personality and health,” reported Scientific American. Though the changes in the traits were small, the link with exercise — or lack thereof — was relatively strong.
James Galvin, a professor of integrated medical science at Florida Atlantic University, says that although personality is a fairly stable trait, based on his research he too has noticed the link between physical activity and changes in a person’s personality. “It’s a little bit of the chicken-and-the-egg question,” says Galvin. “People who are less active are more susceptible to a whole host of other issues. Those medical conditions are also associated with changes in personality and traits.”
One example based on Galvin’s own research is the link between lack of physical activity, neuroticism and Alzheimer’s disease. “Our research has looked at physical activity and muscle mass and strength as a potentially strong indicator of future Alzheimer’s disease,” says Galvin. “Low physical activity is a predictor of neuroticisms and neuroticism is a predictor of Alzheimer’s.”
Furthermore, Galvin says that those who are less active early in their lives tend to be more obese and have a higher risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. “Those medical conditions are also associated with changes in personality,” says Galvin. “Basically, you’re setting up a long-term chain of events that has some bad downstream consequences that lead to changes in personality.”
With regard to the study out of France, Galvin says that there are some limitations to the study, foremost among them the fact that the data was collected in midlife. “The researchers don’t know what their [participants’] life was like in young adulthood,” says Galvin. “When you start collecting things at midlife, we don’t know what could have happened prior to midlife that could have put those factors in play.”
Still, it’s a worrying thought, so how much does the average person have to do to prevent themselves from falling into this trap? Galvin says defining a threshold is a bit challenging because everyone’s circumstances are different: “It’s going to vary — [for] a person who’s never exercised, just getting them off the couch is going to have a great effect. But a person who was athletic for most of their young and midlife, the same added benefits may not be true.”
He does, however, suggest that at minimum, a moderate level of activity — defined as a brisk walk for about 20 minutes a day, three times a week — is a good start. Which means if you don’t want to turn into a close-minded, unhappy jerk later in life, you might want to consider not binge watching another season tonight.