Exercise and Personality: The Surprising Connection
Often we hear how important it is to exercise. Yet there are so many different types of exercise, and so many different recommendations about what type of exercise you should do. Commercials on TV recommend the latest in-home gyms and fitness programs, while one friend may swear by a local workout class, while another thinks daily running is the way to go. Exercise systems come and go in popularity, but what really matters is choosing an exercise regimen you are able to stick to in the long run. And to do this, new research is showing that what matters most may not be your body type or the latest technology at all. It’s something much more deeply rooted. Your exercise and personality type may need to be a match in order for it to be a sustainable practice for you.
How Exercise and Personality Are Linked
There may be a close relationship between exercise and personality, according to recent research. Your personality may determine your preferred exercise type.
It seems those who are extroverts, those who are very objective and logical, and those who are very fixed in their ways tend to prefer getting their exercise in a formal environment such as a gym. Similarly, creative people, especially those who like trying out new things or who like working with new ideas, and those focused on feelings may find outdoor activities more to their liking. These include those who enjoy walking, running, or cycling in nature.
The findings of the study were presented to the British Psychological Society at a Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference. The bottom line seems to be that there is not one type of exercise that suits everyone.
Unfortunately, many people feel pressured to join a gym or sign up for the latest, fashionable exercise regime. In many cases it proves ineffectual and a waste of money, as the exercise offered does not suit their personality type, and people soon quit.
The study conducted involved over 800 people coming from different countries and different types of business environments. It found those most successful with a gym environment were people with an extroverted personality. Those who enjoyed running or cycling tended to be the creative crowd as well as those who enjoyed working on new challenges. Those with a logical mindset were the most likely to stick to a strict exercise plan.
The study indicated that organizations would be better off catering to different personality types when it comes to exercise, as exercise and personality seem to be closely linked. This not only results in increased fitness but may also lead to a decrease in illnesses relating to stress. However, if you are under too much stress, exercise can have the opposite effect, in which case special measures need to be taken.
This begs the question: What is the relationship between exercise and stress?
Exercise and Stress
Before looking at the correlation between exercise and stress, one first needs to understand the effect of stress on the body.
There are many things in today’s society that trigger stress and the body’s response. Typically, your body’s response to stress is triggered in the brain. Here, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is in play as part of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response. When a threat is perceived, the hypothalamus sends chemical messengers to the pituitary that in turn indicates to the adrenal glands that more cortisol is needed in order to deal with this ‘threat’. The result is an increased cortisol production until such time as the threat passes. After this, your cortisol production (and other functions that were decreased or stopped during this period) returns to normal. So far so good.
If your stress continues, however, prolonged increased cortisol production and its cascading effect throughout the body may become a problem that eventually leads to Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). This condition may negatively impact your daily life, depending on the stage you are in, and you may ultimately become bedridden.
The Result of Prolonged, Increased Cortisol Production
When heightened cortisol production is prolonged (or constantly increases), the effects on your body may be devastating. Eventually, your adrenal glands may suffer burnout, and your cortisol production will decline. This may lead to low cortisol levels with its own set of problems.
But what are the consequences to the body when increased cortisol production persists?
- High cortisol production produces more glucose which in turn causes an increase in your blood sugar levels. This may increase your risk of contracting type-2 diabetes as your body may become insulin resistant due to the pancreas struggling to keep up with insulin production to counteract the high glucose levels.
- Increased cortisol production promotes fat storage (usually visceral fat). Visceral fat, however, is able to convert cortisone into cortisol as it has more cortisol receptors than what is found in subcutaneous fat.
- High cortisol levels also lead to a larger appetite, and high blood glucose levels combined with insulin suppression means your individual cells have too little glucose. As a result, hunger messages are sent to your brain which may lead to overeating. Unused glucose is stored in the body as fat.
- High cortisol levels may induce cravings. Cortisol had a modulating effect on other hormones and influences receptors in your hypothalamus. The result is your body craves carbohydrate-rich foods that boost the production of ‘feel-good’ hormones. It is a lack of these ‘feel good’ hormones that may result in stress leading to depression and other psychological issues.
- Cortisol plays a role in inflammation reduction. Continued high-cortisol production may reduce inflammation, but it also ends up suppressing your immune system. This may result in chronic inflammation. A compromised immune system may result in an increased risk of developing cancer, gastrointestinal issues, autoimmune disease, and food allergies, to name but a few.
- High cortisol levels may result in cardiovascular disease as it increases blood pressure by constricting blood vessels. This may result in damage to your arteries and veins and result in a buildup of plaque, with the possibility of a heart attack as a result.
- High cortisol levels may lead to fertility problems in both men and women. In men, the result may be erectile dysfunction, and women may see a disruption of the ovulation and/or menstrual cycles. This is largely due to a hormonal imbalance.
- High cortisol levels that cause a hormone imbalance may have a negative impact on thyroid health.
Symptoms Associated with AFS and Prolonged Cortisol Production
There are many symptoms associated with high cortisol. Someone with adrenal fatigue may present some of these symptoms. Very rarely (if ever) will someone present them all. Some of these include:
- Sleeping problems (e.g. inability to fall asleep or waking for no reason during the night)
- Low libido
- Compromised thyroid function
- Anxiety, depression, irritability, and/or panic attacks
- Loss of hair
- Uterine fibroids
- Foggy brain
- Constant tiredness
- Food cravings (especially fatty foods, high protein foods, or salty foods)
- Pregnancy-related problems (e.g. difficulty getting pregnant or recurrent miscarriages during the first three months)
- Dry skin
- Aches and pains of unknown origin
If you have a few of these symptoms and suspect you have adrenal problems due to high cortisol levels, go to a healthcare practitioner for confirmation. Self-diagnosis and medication are dangerous.
How Exercise May Help Symptoms of Stress
Before jumping on the exercise and personality bandwagon, you need to know that too much exercise can be just as bad for your health as no exercise, especially when adrenal fatigue is a factor. Using the correlation between exercise and personality to choose an activity to get you moving could be a great idea, but if your body isn’t healthy enough for exercise, it could cause your system to crash. This is why, when starting on any exercise plan, no matter your personality type, you need to start slowly, and it’s often best to work with your healthcare professional.
Exercising With AFS
When you exercise, your body releases cortisol. Yet, exercise is good for you. This may seem a discrepancy, but hang on a moment and read further.
You see, although exercise promotes the production of cortisol, it also promotes the release of natural painkillers called endorphins. It is these endorphins that cause what is known as “runner’s high.” These endorphins thus act as both natural painkillers and mood boosters. This results in feelings of relaxation and positivity.
As part of your NEM stress response, your body releases norepinephrine. Fifty percent of this hormone is produced by the brain, most notably in the area that is involved with your emotions and your body’s stress response. This hormone is responsible for turning on other transmitters for dealing with stress, resulting in higher cortisol production, the heart beating faster, and your brain becoming more alert to cope with stress.
Exercise, however, has the ability to reduce the strength of your NEM response. It does this by training your body to modulate the release of norepinephrine. This implies less cortisol is produced. Besides promoting adrenal health, it also promotes hormone health as a normalized production of cortisol leads to hormonal balance.
Besides curbing cortisol production, exercise benefits heart and lung health, stimulating them to use oxygen optimally. It also limits the potential damage high cortisol levels may cause your heart in the long run.
Those in the early stages of adrenal fatigue may thus find that incorporating exercise into their lifestyle has long-term, positive effects, not only for body image but for overall health.
However, those in moderate adrenal fatigue fair differently. Many in this stage report a sense of well-being during and immediately after aerobic exercise, only to be followed by an energy slump that can last for a few hours to a few days. Those in advanced stages of AFS do not tolerate any form of exercise well at all. Even slight exercise beyond normal daily activities may trigger adrenal crashes. The more advanced the state of AFS, the higher the risk.
Exercise and personality, however, is a large determining factor when it comes to taking up a physical activity. For someone who enjoys creative thinking and being in the outdoors, a gym workout may not produce the desired result as you may feel stifled in such a rigid environment. Because exercise and personality are so entwined, you may need to decide on an activity that you enjoy and can stick to.
If you are someone who has led a sedentary lifestyle, talk to your healthcare practitioner before making any decisions regarding exercise. If given the go-ahead, make sure your exercise and personality are a great fit in order to reap long-lasting benefits.
© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
Are exercise and personality important factors to take into consideration for exercise with AFS?
Although most exercise is great, certain factors need to be taken into consideration if suffering from adrenal fatigue. A healthcare practitioner can advise. Deciding on an activity that takes exercise and personality into account greatly enhances your chances of success physically and mentally. However, if you are in the later stages of AFS, exercise can be dangerous, so caution is advised. You need to consider what your body needs and your personality.