The Couch Potato Problem

Can personality affect how physically active we choose to be?

Posted Oct 19, 2016

Being a couch potato can be more dangerous than you think.

Though the World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 150 minutes a week engaging in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise to stay healthy, far too many people spend most of their lives in a sitting position, both at work and at home.   Whether we are sitting at home watching television, playing video games, listening to music, working on a computer, or sitting in a car, modern living often means spending most of our days expending as little energy as possible, even when we are working or studying. 

The Sedentary Behaviour Research Network (SBRN) defines sedentary behaviour as "any waking activity characterized by an energy expenditure ≤ 1.5 metabolic equivalents and a sitting or reclining posture."   In other words, any sitting or reclining activity.  Even for people who may think of themselves as physically active and engaging in regular exercise, spending too much time in sedentary behaviour has been linked to a wide range of health problems such as obesity, depression, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and overall mortality.  

Recognizing the impact of sedentary behaviour on health, new programs are being introduced to encourage people of all ages to become more active.  For example, the Canadian government has recently introduced the Canadian 24 hour movement Guidelines for Children and Youth.   Along with recommending of moderate of vigorous activity each day, the guidelines also suggest restricting recreational screen time (television and computer use) to two hours a day and restricting prolonged sitting.   Given the importance of sleep, the guidelines also recommend 9 to 11 hours of sleep each night for children aged five to thirteen years and eight to ten hour for children aged fourteen to seventeen.

But simply encouraging people to become more active may not be enough, especially since changing the lifelong habits that can lead to a less active lifestyle can be extremely difficult. Not only does leading less active lives become more appealing as we grow older, but advances in technology are slowly eliminating many of our motivations for being more active.  Along with being able to watch television at home, we can also surf the Internet, enjoy movies and television on demand, communicate with family and friends, play video games, and even engage in work or studying from home without ever having to leave our comfortable recliners.  For many people, staying active can be a losing battle.

To better understand what motivates people to become more active (or not), researchers have been taking a closer look at the role that personality traits may play.  It's been long recognized that certain traits such as neuroticism may lead to less healthy lifestyle choices, including poor nutrition and smoking, while conscientiousness is usually associated with positive lifestyle choices.  For other personality traits, including extraversion, openness, and agreeableness,  the link with healthy living is harder to evaluate.  For example, while people high in extraversion may be more physically active, they are also more likely to consume more alcohol as well.

A new meta-analysis published in the journal Health Psychology takes a comprehensive look at how personality is linked to sedentary behaviour.   Written by a team of researchers at Australia's University of Wollongong and Australian Catholic University, the article examines 26 published studies from countries including Australia, Denmark, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and South Korea.   The researchers also incorporated data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA) examining TV viewing and personality in older adults in the United Kingdom. 

As expected, sedentary behaviour correlated positively with neuroticism and negatively with conscientiousness. Other personality traits were not significant overall.  On the other hand, there seemed to be a significant interaction between different personality traits and the type of sedentary behaviour participants preferred.   For example, people high in extraversion spent more time engaging in social media but much less time playing computer games and computer screen time in general. 

There also seemed to be significant differences in terms of age with openness being more important in reducing sedentary behavior in older participants while agreeableness seemed more important in reducing sedentary behavior in younger people.  This negative link between agreeableness and sedentary behaviour was also more significant in female participants.  Overall however, the size of the correlations obtained by researchers tended to be moderate at best.

So what does this tell us?   While these results confirm that personality traits can affect the kind of lifestyle choices people make, the actual link, while significant, tends not to be that strong.  People choose to live sedentary lifestyles for a variety of reasons and those reasons may change as we grow older.  Even for those who are naturally outgoing and who enjoy being active, being actively involved in social media may mean spending a substantial amount of time sitting at a computer.  Still, traits such as neuroticism and conscientiousness seem to have a strong influence on how physically active we may decide to be and can also help explain why breaking out of our old sedentary habits and becoming more active can be so difficult.

In practical terms, understanding how personality can influence lifestyle choices such as sedentary behaviour can be useful for health professionals trying to encourage patients to be more active.  Helping to change neuroticism and other ingrained traits that might be undermining our health can be essential in living longer, more active lives.