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Anxiety sensitivity hinders young adults from reaching their exercise goals

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The level of anxiety sensitivity in young adults is correlated with success or failure in achieving exercise goals, according to a study published earlier this month in Behavior Modification.

Anxiety sensitivity (AS) is “the fear of anxiety-related sensations.” In other words, people with AS fear experiencing phenomena like tightness of the chest, sweating, or an increased heart rate—sensations that may also occur during exercise.

Researchers from Boston University and the University of Texas were interested in understanding the relationship between AS and the ability to stick to exercise goals.

“Despite emerging evidence that AS is a predictor of exercise avoidance, to our knowledge no studies to date have examined how AS may prospectively affect attempts at behavior change in individuals who are motivated to increase their exercise,” said Michael W. Otto, corresponding author.

“That is, does AS predict failure to engage in exercise even among individuals who explicitly express a desire and motivation to increase their time spent exercising?”

The team also hypothesized that individuals with high AS would set smaller exercise goals for themselves.

The study included 145 undergraduate students from Boston University who expressed an interest in increasing their level of exercise. Participants completed an online survey containing several questionnaires.  The questionnaires measured AS along with various personality traits characteristic of behavior change, including impulsivity, grit, perceived behavioral control, and action planning. Participants were asked to set an exercise goal for the next week and were surveyed again a week later to measure progress.

The researchers found that of all participants in the study, only 37% met their exercise goal for the week. This disparity is typical—research has shown “a large intention–behavior gap for exercise behavior,” according to Otto.

The data showed no indication that individuals with high AS set smaller exercise goals for themselves. However, they were significantly less likely to meet the goals they did set.

Individuals with high AS were also less likely to meet their goals than those who only had low scores in grit, action planning and other behavior change personality traits, indicating that AS in and of itself is an important factor.

The mixed results of the study indicate that more research is needed, according to the team.

“It remains unclear whether AS is related to exercise behavior when individuals are attempting to make longer term change,” said Otto.

Future research may focus on making the measurements more objective—self-reporting exercise levels can be unreliable—and extending the time period beyond one week.