I am continually excited about new research findings that add to our understanding of the benefits of doing things that are natural and free. Natural and free are important considerations as it means that they are accessible to most people.

The Big Five

Recently I have been reading about research conducted by Professor Yannick Stephan who reviewed three separate studies that investigated the long term benefits of exercise, specifically focusing on benefits for the big five personality traits. Simply put these traits are

  1. Openness, which includes being imaginative, adventurous and keeping an open mind.
  2. Conscientiousness, which includes having an eye for detail, being organised and reliable.
  3. Extraversion, which includes enjoying meeting new people, being assertive and talkative.
  4. Agreeableness, which includes being friendly, compassionate and cooperative.
  5. Neuroticism, which includes emotional instability such as mood swings and tension.

Typically the participants in the studies were in their late forties to early fifties at the start of the study, they were then followed up approximately twenty years later. Different types of physical activity were measured including gardening, taking a brisk walk and running, there was a level to suit everyone.

Mental Health Benefits

The research showed that physical activity increases levels of the first four of the big five personality traits. People were more open, conscientious, extravert and agreeable. While this is not a direct cause and effect relationship, the results are a good indicator of what we can do to help protect and improve both our mental and physical health.

Examining the traits, it appears that when we exercise, a positive trajectory is formed. For example, when we exercise, we often put ourselves into an uncomfortable state, pushing ourselves to walk up the hill without stopping or do the extra sit up even though it’s hard. This may increase our compassion for others who find tasks challenging thereby increasing our level of agreeableness.

Exercise can often be completed with others such as going for a walk or a run together and friendships can result from this. When this happens we can support each, further increasing agreeableness. Similarly, developing new friendships and meeting new people from different backgrounds can increase extraversion and openness.


I have recently witnessed this at my local Parkrun. For those of you who have not heard of Parkrun, it is a volunteer led, timed, 5km run that takes place in hundreds of towns and cities at 9am every Saturday morning. All types of people participate, all ages, all abilities and the time taken to complete the run can range from 16 minutes to an hour. It is very inclusive and seasoned Parkrunners and volunteers support new people (agreeableness). New friendships are made as you share the experience of pushing yourself alongside others (agreeableness and extroversion). People who have never run before try it (openess). The volunteers work diligently to ensure the race is organised, safe and the results are collated (conscientiousness).

These are just a few examples of how exercise can provide a preventative buffer and increase our mental health as well as our physical health.

Let me know how exercise has benefitted you.

Parkrun. (2018). [Online]. Parkrun UK. Available at: http://www.parkrun.org.uk/
Stephan, Y., Sutin, A. R.,Luchetti, M., Bosselut, G. & Terracciano, A. (2018). Physical Activity and Personality Development over Twenty Years: Evidence from Three Longitudinal Samples. Journal of Research in Personality. 73, 173-179. doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2018.02.005.

About the author: To find out more about Bryony Shaw MAPP, please click here.


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