New Study Links Exercise To Better Self-Control

Research appearing recently in the peer-reviewed journal Behavior Modification shows people engaged in a tailored physical activity intervention demonstrate improved self-control.

“There’s a particular type of task called ‘delay discounting’ that presents individuals with a series of choices between ‘smaller/sooner’ and ‘larger/later’ rewards,” said Michael Sofis, a doctoral student in applied behavioral science at the University of Kansas, who headed the study. “It’s something we all experience in our lives. Do you want a little money now — or wait and get a lot of money later? The degree to which one chooses that smaller/sooner reward is called impulsivity, and that has been linked to obesity problems, gambling and most forms of substance abuse.”

According to Sofis, a change in one’s ability to value future events might keep maladaptive behavior in check and increase the likelihood of making healthy choices. He designed a pilot study, and a subsequent larger study, to see if exercise could trigger changes in delay discounting.

“There’s a lot of neuroscientific evidence that suggests mood-altering effects of physical activity could change how you make decisions,” said Sofis. “There are a variety of proposed biological and neurological mechanisms and different effects for people with different genetic profiles linked to mental health issues. Studies say if I have a genetic profile linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety, I’m more likely to get benefits from physical activity.”

Sofis and KU co-authors Ale Carrillo and David Jarmolowicz recruited participants and instructed them to walk, jog or run laps on a track at “individualized high and low effort levels” and recorded participants’ own perceived effort.

“We wanted to create an individualized, but still standardized approach,” Sofis said. “We had people rate their perceived effort on a scale of six to 20. Six would be just sitting on a couch — and 20 would be maximal exertion. We’d start them at levels of eight and 10, respectively. The idea is that we’d slowly shape them up to higher effort levels. For each person, the amount that they’re exerting is going to relate to amount they’re going to enjoy it.”

Participants’ perceived exertion was established before the study to establish a baseline measure, treatment was tracked for seven to eight weeks, and participants were also asked to self-report maintenance of increased exercise for an additional month. Delay discounting was tested before, during and after treatment, and during maintenance using a standardized 27-item delay discounting task called the Monetary Choice Questionnaire.

The researchers found statistically significant improvements in delay discounting were evident not only during the treatment phase of increased exertion but also that improvements were maintained a month afterward for the group.

“Our study is the first, to our knowledge, that shows maintained changes in delay discounting at follow-up,” Sofis said. “In our study, 13 of 16 participants kept their improved self-control.”

Sofis said the research helps strengthen emerging evidence that delay discounting can be altered. Due to links between discounting and many clinical issues, Sofis suggested that researchers and clinicians alike should attend to discounting as a treatment target.

“This is becoming important as a clinical treatment target,” he said. “If you could measure one outcome and potentially see a change, you should be able to see myriad other changes at once.”

For people showing problems with impulsivity or self-control, Sofis said the takeaway message is simple: Exercise could help.

“I had people of all different ages, BMIs, incomes and mental-health levels, and these studies suggested that nearly every single person at least improved their delayed discounting to some degree,” he said. “If anyone just exercises, it’s likely you will show some improvements. More evidence is needed to draw definitive conclusions, but it’s very encouraging to see people improving. Just show up and give it a go — it seems like people do improve. The encouraging part is we had individuals that were walking the whole time, people in their 50s or 60s, and people in their 20s who were very fit and running, it didn’t seem to matter. Nearly everyone did improve.”

Currently, Sofis is developing a smartphone application, dubbed “Your620,” allowing people to record exercise and delay-discounting changes, and hopes to hear from people interested in the app. He plans to earn his doctoral degree in May from KU, then look for postdoctoral research opportunities where he can perform further research on delay discounting.

UCI Study Links Selfies, Happiness

Regularly snapping selfies with your smartphone and sharing photos with your friends can help make you a happier person, according to computer scientists at the University of California, Irvine. In a first-of-its-kind study published just before back-to-school season, the authors found that students can combat the blues with some simple, deliberate actions on their mobile devices.

By conducting exercises via smartphone photo technology and gauging users’ psychological and emotional states, the researchers found that the daily taking and sharing of certain types of images can positively affect people. The results of the study out of UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences were published recently in the Psychology of Well-Being.

“Our research showed that practicing exercises that can promote happiness via smartphone picture taking and sharing can lead to increased positive feelings for those who engage in it,” said lead author Yu Chen, a postdoctoral scholar in UCI’s Department of Informatics. “This is particularly useful information for returning college students to be aware of, since they face many sources of pressure.”

These stressors – financial difficulties, being away from home for the first time, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and the rigors of coursework – can negatively impact students’ academic performance and lead to depression.

“The good news is that despite their susceptibility to strain, most college students constantly carry around a mobile device, which can be used for stress relief,” Chen said. “Added to that are many applications and social media tools that make it easy to produce and send images.”

The goal of the study, she said, was to help researchers understand the effects of photo taking on well-being in three areas: self-perception, in which people manipulated positive facial expressions; self-efficacy, in which they did things to make themselves happy; and pro-social, in which people did things to make others happy.

Chen and her colleagues designed and conducted a four-week study involving 41 college students. The subjects – 28 female and 13 male – were instructed to continue their normal day-to-day activities (going to class, doing schoolwork, meeting with friends, etc.) while taking part in the research.

But first each was invited to the informatics lab for an informal interview and to fill out a general questionnaire and consent form. The scientists helped students load a survey app onto their phones to document their moods during the first “control” week of the study. Participants used a different app to take photos and record their emotional states over the following three-week “intervention” phase.

Subjects reported their moods three times a day using the smartphone apps. In evening surveys, they were asked to provide details of any significant events that may have affected their emotions during the course of the day.

The project involved three types of photos to help the researchers determine how smiling, reflecting and giving to others might impact users’ moods. The first was a selfie, to be taken daily while smiling. The second was an image of something that made the photo taker happy. The third was a picture of something the photographer believed would bring happiness to another person (which was then sent to that person). Participants were randomly assigned to take photos of one type.

Researchers collected nearly 2,900 mood measurements during the study and found that subjects in all three groups experienced increased positive moods. Some participants in the selfie group reported becoming more confident and comfortable with their smiling photos over time. The students taking photos of objects that made them happy became more reflective and appreciative. And those who took photos to make others happy became calmer and said that the connection to their friends and family helped relieve stress.

“You see a lot of reports in the media about the negative impacts of technology use, and we look very carefully at these issues here at UCI,” said senior author Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics. “But there have been expanded efforts over the past decade to study what’s become known as ‘positive computing,’ and I think this study shows that sometimes our gadgets can offer benefits to users.”

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

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