How Your Personality Can Undermine Your Fitness Goals and What to Do About It

Suzie Glassman

Use your personality strengths to stay motivated this year.

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Most of us have taken a personality test at one point or another. Whether for curiosity's sake or as part of school or work training, it’s helpful to know more about who we are and how we interact with others. Until recently, I hadn’t thought much about how my personality affects my motivation to exercise and eat well. I did what I thought I liked or what experts recommended.

That is until I came across Chris Friesen, Ph.D., and his book Achieve after listening to a favorite podcast. Friesen is a clinical psychologist who specializes in sport and performance psychology. His book, subtitled, Find Out Who You Are, What You Really Want, And How To Make It Happen, explores how the big five personality traits combine to influence our personal, professional, and athletic goals.

This article examines those big five personality traits and offers tips from my life as a professional fitness coach and Dr. Friesen on setting your goals based on your personality.

1. Negative Emotions

This personality trait is associated with the experience of negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, or anger (it’s also known as neuroticism). Those high in neuroticism often experience impulsive and less emotionally stable feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

Of course, most people exist on a continuum. Still, at the high end of neuroticism, these people experience a high amount of stress, worry easily, are more anxious, get upset regularly, and are less able to bounce back quickly from stressful events.

Many creative people tend to be high in negative emotions, including writers, singers, musicians, and actors. After all, those who feel life’s highs and lows most deeply can take that angst and translate it into work that speaks to others.

There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of a neurotic personality (my son is this way). However, it helps to know this when planning your health and fitness goals.

Friesen notes,

If you’re high in negative emotions, to motivate yourself, you think of the negative things that will happen if you don’t reach your goal or take an action.

What to do:

  1. Think about what will happen if you don’t start your exercise regimen. Are you at risk of Type 2 diabetes? Do you have high blood pressure? Will you need medication if you don’t lose weight?
  2. If you skip your workout, how will that impact you negatively? Will someone be disappointed? This is where having a health coach, or accountability partner may help. Often, knowing your action will negatively impact someone else will be enough to make you stay consistent.
  3. When changing your diet or alcohol habits, think about the negative consequences of eating processed, fried, and calorically dense foods with little nutritional value. Will you feel bad? Does it impact your gut? If you drink too much alcohol, will you have a headache?

2. Extroversion, or a person’s tolerance for external stimulation

Extraversion is linked to positive emotions, sociability, warm, cheerful, energetic, and assertive behaviors. I won’t spend much time on the characteristics, as pretty much everyone understands where they fall on the continuum from extrovert to introvert. If not, take the test.

People who thrive on interaction with others and draw energy from a crowd are much more likely to stick to an exercise routine if there’s a group aspect or social component. Extroverts need to work out in a gym (as opposed to at home), run/bike/swim with or around others, and possibly join a training club.

I’m an introvert and prefer to workout alone. I put my Airpods in and do my own thing, but it took me a long time to figure this out. After years of group fitness classes, I realized I left feeling drained and tired. Aside from the difficult workout, having to socialize while exercising wasn’t helping recharge my batteries — especially after a long day of interacting with coworkers.

According to Friesen, people low in negative emotions and high in extroversion — tend to make promotion-focused goals. This means the trick to getting extroverts motivated isn’t to think of all the bad things that can happen if we don’t reach our goals, but rather think of all the good things that will happen when we do.

What to do:

  1. When setting your goals, keep your mind focused on the benefits. Visualize fitting into an old pair of jeans or how awesome your “after” picture is going to look. Picture getting off medication or what your doctor will say at next year’s visit.
  2. Find a partner or group to work out with. If you’re changing your diet, involve your friends or family. Work with a coach who will check in frequently or possibly exercise with you.
  3. Be realistic about how you’ll feel after exercising alone. Even if you need to run on a treadmill next to a total stranger, you’ll pick up energy from their physical presence.

3. Openness to experience

Openness implies being creative, imaginative, psychologically minded, curious, and flexible in their way of thinking, feeling, and behaving.

Friesen says,

If you’re low in openness you’ll prefer more traditional ways of doing exercises, and you might avoid using the latest great thing to track your workouts or you’ll wait before investing in a gadget or new app.

On the other hand, if you’re high in openness, you may benefit from trying new fitness trends or adopting the latest fitness trackers. Just be careful, as switching exercise programs before completion can hamper your results.

If you know you get bored easily, stick to programs that last 6–8 weeks and then allow you to change up what you’re doing.

What to do:

  1. If you are easily bored with more traditional exercises, it’s okay to experiment with new things. However, I tell clients to stick with it long enough to see positive changes. Set yourself a test at the beginning of a new program (i.e., how fast you run a mile, your max weight for a certain exercise, or a benchmark workout) and retest at the end of the program. You want to make sure you stick with something long enough to see improvement.
  2. If you get bored eating the same thing day after day to meet a calorie goal, know you’ll need to find various recipes of meals that will work for you. Plan your recipes for the week ahead of time since you likely tend to cook whatever sounds good at the moment unless you know what you’re eating ahead of time.
  3. If you’re low in openness, find an exercise regimen and routine that works for you and stick with it for as long you see improvement. Also, you may like to eat the same breakfast and lunch daily while only changing your dinner.

4. Agreeableness, or your attitude toward others

Agreeableness comprises a more trusting, helpful, and unselfish way of thinking, feeling, and behaving. People who are strong in this trait tend to be less competitive and more cooperative than others. They may thrive in team sports, where the goal is to help each other.

Additionally, if you’re high in agreeableness (like me), you may benefit from only competing with yourself. I only care about improving my times and not trying to outrace someone I don’t know.

If you’re lower on this spectrum, finding challenges or virtual leaderboards where you can compete with people your age and gender may motivate you to work harder.

Friesen notes,

People who are low in agreeableness tend to be skeptical and not easily duped, they’re more guarded, more focused on their own challenges, more vocal about what they disagree with, and more competitive.

What to do:

  1. If you’re lower in this trait, consider finding a workout class with friendly competition like CrossFit or Orange Theory (I’m sure there are many others). Fitness apps like Peloton and Apple Fitness+ allow you to compete virtually (helpful if you’re also an introvert).
  2. If you’re high in this trait, focus on how you can improve compared to you from last month or even you from yesterday. Turn off the leaderboard function or competition aspect of a workout, so you’re not distracted and demotivated by where you stand compared to everyone else.
  3. If you’re extroverted and highly agreeable, you may love to join a team sport. When COVID restrictions are over, look to join an adult league of some sort.

5. Motivation & self-control

Conscientiousness implies a more organized, reliable, punctual, hardworking, determined, and self-disciplined approach. If you’re high in this trait (me), you can stick to a weekly training schedule or a regimented training plan like one for a marathon or triathlon where you’re frequently increasing mileage or intensity.

Friesen explains,

If you’re low in this trait you’ll need a really big Why to get yourself to exercise. Writing out a list of reasons for exercising and keeping the list next to your alarm clock could be clutch.

Having low motivation doesn’t mean you’re weak or something’s wrong with you. It’s a part of your personality you’ll need to keep this in mind when planning your fitness goals.

Friesen goes on to say,

People whose personalities are high in motivation/self-control can experience a severe let down after a big race. To feel normal, you need goals, to know what’s next.

In my 20s, I ran marathon after marathon. I could ride the high of a post-race finish for about 48 hours before thinking about what I wanted to do next. I don’t run long-distance anymore, but I still set goals for biking faster and lifting heavier.

What to do:

  1. If you’re highly conscientious, make sure you’ve always got a goal on the horizon. It doesn’t have to be a race. It can be an improvement in the amount of weight you lift or to a particular bodyweight or clothing size.
  2. If you’re low in this trait, you’ll benefit from an accountability partner or coach who reminds you why you started in the first place. Use sticky notes around your house to remind yourself of your goals.
  3. Understand that low motivation isn’t a fault. If you know this about yourself, you can plan ways to keep going when you’re ready to quit.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to remember no one is all or nothing in any one of these traits. In an article for Huffington Post, Friesen comments,

These five personality traits — better known as dimensions in the psychology world because each trait is made up of sub-traits — are normally distributed within the population. This distribution is in the classic bell-shaped curve with most people falling near the middle. However, most of us tend to fall either above or below the middle point, he said, and where we fall on each of the five personality dimensions has no relationship to where we fall on the others.

You can be highly extroverted, low in openness, and highly motivated. In this case, you’d benefit from working out in a social setting, with a traditional program that is highly regimented.

As you set your goals for the coming year, think about where you fall in each of the dimensions. Make a plan that plays to your personality strengths and you may find yourself happily engaged for months on end. Here’s to your 2021 fitness goals!

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I write about health and fitness with the goal to help you live a healthier, happier life.

Denver, CO
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