Kroencke, L., Harari, G. M., Katana, M., & Gosling, S. D. (2019) Personality trait predictors and mental well-being correlates of exercise frequency across the academic semester, Social Science & Medicine, 236.
Regular exercise is frequently recommended as a means of combating the negative effects of stress on mental health. But, among college students, exercise frequency remains below recommended levels.
To better understand exercising behaviors in college students, we examined how exercise patterns change across an academic semester and how these changes relate to personality traits and mental well-being.
We conducted two longitudinal experience sampling studies, using data from four cohorts of students, spanning four semesters (Fall 2015 – Spring 2017). In Study 1, a large sample of United States college students (cohort 1; N = 1126) reported the number of days they exercised and their levels of happiness, stress, sadness, and anxiety each week over the course of one academic semester (13 weeks). Study 2 (cohorts 2–4; N = 1973) was conducted to replicate our exploratory results from Study 1.
Using latent growth curve modeling, we observed the same normative pattern of change across both studies: The average student exercised twice during the first week of the semester and showed consistent decreases in exercise frequency in following weeks. Across both studies, higher initial levels of exercise frequency at the start of the semester were consistently related to higher extraversion, higher conscientiousness, and lower neuroticism. Furthermore, exercise frequency and mental well-being fluctuated together after controlling for time trends in the data: In weeks during which students exercised more than predicted, they also reported being happier and less anxious.
We contextualize the findings with regard to past research and discuss how they can be applied in behavior change interventions to promote students’ well-being.