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Exercise and the Self-Esteem Cycle

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D. and Susan Gustafson
"Individuals high in self-efficacy, the belief that they can be successful at an activity, and in self-esteem, a perception of positive self-regard, are more likely to engage and adhere to an exercise program."
Low self-esteem has been implicated in most psychological dysfunction; however, low self-esteem is not necessarily the root cause of this dysfunction. It is believed (Aro, 1994) that individuals with high self-esteem who may be predisposed to psychological disorders are better equipped to cope with those disorders, and thus, reduce the negative consequences that may result. Therefore, if self-esteem can be enhanced, the psychological consequences of disorders can be reduced. This process can be illustrated by describing a similar process that occurs with physical illness such as diabetes. The individual may be genetically predisposed to developing the illness, but if they engage in the proper healthy care-taking activities, they may prevent the development of the illness or, at least, reduce its consequences (Amir et. al., 1990. The enhancement of self-esteem and self-efficacy can be an important contributing factor to both the prevention of psychological and physical illness and the maintenance of health.

Exercise is in the position of being able to contribute to the prevention of illness or the reduction of its effects through the process of improving self-esteem. Reviews of the literature (Gauvin & Spence, 1996) illustrate clearly that exercise contributes to improvements in self-esteem.

The purpose of this paper is to review two lines of research showing the relation of exercise to self-esteem. First, numerous correlational studies (Fontane, 1996) show that individuals with high self-esteem are more likely to engage in exercise regularly. Second, a substantial number of experimental studies show that the implementation of a consistent, long-term exercise program has the effect of increasing self-esteem (Fox, 2000). The articles we reviewed for this paper show this pattern in both adults and children.

The focus of this paper is on the construct of self-esteem, the process of evaluating the self negatively or positively, rather than on the construct of self-concept, the descriptive judgment of the self, as most of the research articles are poor at making the distinction between these two constructs. Studies examining self-efficacy, which is the level and strength of an individual’s belief that he or she can successfully perform a given activity, have also been examined given the similarity of this construct to self-esteem. In addition, most measures used examine the evaluation of the self-concept, considered self-esteem, rather than a description of self because the researchers’ are interested in improving psychological health, not merely describing it. However, as Sonstroem and Morgan (1989) indicate, an understanding of the underlying structure of the self-concept can contribute to the process of mediating change in self-esteem.

Sonstroem and Morgan (1989) use a model for the structure of self-esteem with is hierarchical in nature and progresses from an individual’s perception or evaluation of his/her behavior in specific situations through successive categorizations to the end result of general self-concept. They propose a model for self-esteem and exercise which involves the individual’s self-perceptions progressing from the specific to the general. Specific self-perceptions begin with self-efficacy beliefs regarding the individual’s sense of competence with a particular physical activity. Intermediate self-perceptions involve physical competence which is the individual’s sense of overall fitness and physical acceptance which is the degree of satisfaction with the body. These more specific self-perceptions are then integrated into the global perception of the self. According to Sonstroem and Morgan (1989), the more specific self-perceptions are more amenable to change than the general self-perceptions.

Self-Esteem’s Impact on Exercise Behavior

Generally, the correlational research examining self-esteem (and other similar constructs) has shown a relation between self-esteem and the probability of engaging in exercise and maintaining an exercise program. The presence of high self-esteem or self-efficacy beliefs has been demonstrated to be factors in determining whether an individual will elect to participate in an exercise program. The research as reviewed by Gauvin & Spence (1996) indicates that exercise adherers report higher levels of efficacy beliefs about their ability to adhere to exercise as well as for their physical proficiency in exercise activities. In contrast, research with adolescents with low self-esteem shows tendencies to under-eating and over-eating with less likelihood of physical activity (Mueller et. al., 1995). With respect to adults, studies utilizing the Physical Self-Perception Profile (PSPP) successfully demonstrated that positive physical self-worth showed a relationship between global self-esteem and the sub-domain levels of sport confidence, physical conditioning, attractive body image, and strength. Further, it predicted exercisers from non-exercisers as well as degree of exercise involvement for both males and females (McAuley et. al., 1997). A study of Chinese students showed that higher body esteem in males tended to be associated with increased exercise, whereas overall Chinese students tended to have lower self-esteem and engage in less exercise than their American counterparts (Davis & Katzman, 1998). Finally, the correlational studies show that there appears to be a lack of a relation between exercise and self-esteem for individuals who do not view exercise as essential (McAuley et. al., 1997). Also, not all research demonstrated a correlational effect between exercise and self-esteem; for instance, Aine and Lester (1995) found no effect on a self-report questionnaire examining regular exercise and amount of exercise in students.

Self-efficacy research with older adults tends to support the theory that individuals with high self-efficacy beliefs are more likely to engage in exercise. In addition, high self-efficacy predicts the likelihood of maintaining an exercise program (Fontane, 1996). For instance, Grembowski et. al. (1993) found that older individuals with high self-efficacy are fairly consistent in positive outcome expectations across different specific health-related behaviors such as exercise, diet, and smoking, and therefore, more likely to follow through on achieving the expected outcome.

Just as the cognitive processes of children have been categorized by age, the development of self-esteem also seems to be age-dependent and is impacted over time by social interaction and personal experiences. Self-esteem impacts specific factors such as physical self-efficacy, self-confidence, anxiety, and perceived control in both male and female athletes of all ages and across different sports. An individual’s participation in sports tends to be related to these factors (Boyd & Hrycaiko, 1997).

Exercise Behavior’s Impact on Self-Esteem

The research has shown that when adults, adolescents, and children undertake an exercise program self-esteem is enhanced in the process. This paper examines a number of articles examining the different age populations and the influence of exercise on self-esteem.

As research had not previously demonstrated the relation of an environmental influence such as physical activity and its effect on the development of self-esteem in children, Boyd and Hrycaiko (1997) examined this relation more directly. This study of pre-adolescent and adolescent females revealed that the pre-adolescent low self-esteem and low physical self-concept groups derived the greatest benefit from the physical activity intervention. The purpose of the study was to examine the effects of a physical activity intervention package which involved a six-week structured exercise program on the self-esteem of pre-adolescent and adolescent females. They hypothesized that a physical activity intervention would positively affect physical self-concepts and global self-esteem of low-esteem early and pre-adolescent subjects. Upon examination of the intervention package of self-esteem, ranked on the basis of total self-concept, the impact was significant only for the physical appearance of self-concept for the pre-adolescent girls. With respect to the pre-adolescents, partial support for the hypothesis was made since this group experienced significant changes in global self-esteem. However, the results for the early and middle adolescents did not support the hypothesis, as these groups did not have significant changes in self-esteem. Therefore, the hypothesis that a physical activity intervention would have a positive effect on physical self-concepts was only partially supported. Support for the third hypothesis that the greatest effect would be with the early adolescents followed by the pre-adolescents came from the data showing that the pre-adolescents garnered the most benefit from the intervention package, the early adolescents showed somewhat mixed results, while no significant results were seen with the middle adolescents. It was concluded that the impact on the two adolescent age groups was limited because their levels of self-esteem were high from the start and the physical activity program wasn’t challenging enough to the adolescent group to produce significant change.

In a study comparing pregnant adolescents engaged in a six-week course of aerobic exercise with a control group of pregnant adolescents not engaged in exercise, conducted by Koniak-Griffin (1994) at UCLA it was demonstrated that an aerobic exercise program reduced depressive symptoms as well as improved feelings of self-concept. Interpretation of the data from this research coincides with the generally accepted theories of this field. First, the author concluded that the improved mental status could be the increased plasma levels of endorphins. Second, the increased feelings of self-efficacy could be the result of participation in the program. Third, the participant’s needs were met simply by being involved in a group activity that provided new opportunities, social contact, and group acceptance. Lastly, the exercise provided a diversion and allowed participants to forget about their problems. In general, the results of this study concur with previous research as to the positive effects of aerobic exercise on mental health, but individual with higher self-esteem do not exhibit significant changes.

Research on adults has revealed consistent results similar to the research with adolescents. Two of the reviewed studies are specific to women; however, another study which included middle-aged men and women showed similar results. A study examining acute mood response in women at two separate time periods, conducted by Pronk et.al. (1995) at Texas A & M, revealed that maximal exercise shows acute increases in fatigue and self-esteem and decreased tension and vigor.

A study of the effects of an eight-week walking program on self-esteem in women conducted by Palmer (1995) at Northeast Louisiana University concurs with the previously stated research. This study also showed improvement in self-esteem following the implementation of a fitness program. They hypothesized that walking will improve scores on depression, self-esteem, and physical fitness. Results of the data showed that, not only did the walking group have an increase in self-esteem, but that the non-walking group had a significant decrease in self-esteem. However, interpretation of the results are similar to that of the pregnant adolescents in that the changes in self-esteem could have been due to other factors such as acquiring a new skill, engaging in social interaction, the influence of the researchers, or having accomplished a difficult task. Additionally, significant improvements in self-esteem are more pronounced when individuals initially have very low self-esteem. These participants described themselves as “fitness rejects” which could also explain their more notable improved feelings of self-efficacy. Another important point is the finding that physiological improvement is not necessary for psychological improvement. The women in this program did not know their improved fitness levels before the post psychological measures were taken, indicating that the self-esteem changes were not related to the physical improvements. However, both physical and psychological benefits from the walking program were demonstrated.

A study by McAuley et. al. (1997) at University of Illinois of exercise and self-esteem in middle-aged adults participating in a twenty week structured exercise program demonstrated support for the theoretical relationships among the components of self-esteem. The purpose of this study was to determine the relation between general self-concept and the specific subareas of self-concept, specifically how the changes in efficacy and aerobic capacity as well as engaging in an exercise program impacted self-worth. This research tested the extent to which self-esteem changed over time with exercise participation and within the hierarchical structure of self-esteem as postulated by Sonstroem and Morgan (1989). The results demonstrated that improved levels of physical self-efficacy and fitness were more directly related to physical self-esteem than perceptions occurring in the subareas. The authors conclude that the findings are consistent with the Sonstroem and Morgan model indicating that self-efficacy predicts physical competence which then impacts self-esteem.


Individuals high in self-efficacy, the belief that they can be successful at an activity, and in self-esteem, a perception of positive self-regard, are more likely to engage and adhere to an exercise program (Fontane, 1996; Gauvin & Spence, 1996; McAuley, et.al., 1997). This is consistent with Sonstroem and Morgan’s (1989) model of self-esteem enhancement through exercise. The individuals who have belief in specific competencies are more likely to engage in exercise and then experience success which increases their likelihood of continuing exercise. In addition, exercise is likely to increase self-esteem. These findings are fairly consistent across different age ranges and length of exercise programs as well as intensity of exercise (Boyd and Hrycaiko, 1997; Koniak-Griffin, 1994; McAuley et. al., 1997; Palmer, 1995; Pronk et.al., 1995)

The relation of the correlational studies indicating that high self-esteem individuals are more likely to participate in exercise and the experimental studies showing improved self-esteem from exercise implementation can be understood through Bandura’s (1977) concept of reciprocal determinsim. This theory indicates that behavior, personality, and environment interact together to determine personality and behavior. Thus, the personality trait of positive self-regard leads to the adaptation of exercise behavior. Engaging in the behavior of exercise, in turn, leads to greater positive self-regard; thus, they impact on one another is a reciprocal fashion. Although the articles we reviewed didn’t examine the nature of environment in this equation, it can be postulated that increased self-esteem and exercise behavior can also impact environmental conditions. For instance, exercise may bring the individual in contact with others who are more interested in fitness which may encourage the continuation of these behaviors. In fact, several articles (Koniak-Griffin, 1994; Palmer, 1995) speculated in their conclusions that the social contact may be a mechanism of change for self-esteem.

It does seem that the research has difficulty demonstrating that the improvements in self-esteem are directly related to engaging in physical activity versus engaging in any positive goal-oriented activity. The studies did not directly compare exercise to other goal-oriented behavior. Also, third variables such as social influence may be involved in the outcome of the research. Another problem in the research is the use of average or high self-esteem research participants; few studies have used clinical populations (Paluska & Schwenk, 2000). Findings may have been clearer if clinical populations who are particularly low in self-esteem such as depressed individuals had been used. However, it is significant that in some studies when higher self-esteem populations were used that self-esteem was still shown to be enhanced which strengthens the conclusion that self-esteem is improved through exercise.

It seems that the research on self-esteem points to a complex problem involving enhancing self-esteem. That is, individuals who are higher in self-esteem may be more likely to engage in exercise behavior. The experimental studies conducted are artificial environmental conditions given they don’t address an individual independently and voluntarily engaging in exercise. It would be interesting to see how this factor would impact the self-esteem. Also, a major problem is how to induce individuals low in self-esteem to voluntarily engage in exercise.

Overall, the connection between self-esteem and exercise has been fairly established although, as identified above, there are specific issues that need to be more clearly defined and more rigorous experimental research conducted.


Aine, D. & Lester, D. (1995). Exercise, depression, and self-esteem. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 81, 890.

Amir, S., Rabin, C., & Galatzer, A. (1990). Cognitive and behavioral determinants of compliance in diabetics. Health & Social Work, 15, 144-151.

Aro, H. (1994). Risk and protective factors in depression: a developmental perspective. Acta Pyschiatrica Scandanavica, 89, 59-64.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Boyd, K.R. & Hrycaiko, D.W. (1997). The effect of a physical activity intervention package on the self-esteem of pre-adolescent and adolescent females. Adolescence, 32, 693-707.

Davis, C. & Katzman, M.A. (1998). Chinese men and women in the United States and Hong Kong: body and self-esteem ratings as a prelude to dieting and exercise. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 23, 99-102.

Fontane, P.E. (1996). Exercise, fitness, and feeling well. American Behavioral Scientist, 39, 288-305.

Fox, K.R. (2000). Self-esteem, self-perceptions and exercise. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 31, 228-240.

Gauvin, L. & Spence, J.C. (1996). Physical activity and psychological well-being: knowledge base, current issues, and caveats. Nutrition Reviews, 54, 53-63.

Koniak-Griffin, D. (1994). Aerobic exercise, psychological well-being, and physical discomforts during adolescent pregnancy. Research in Nursing and Health, 17, 253-263.

Leith, L.M. (1994). Foundations of Exercise and Mental Health. West Virginia: Fitness Information Technology, Inc.

McAuley, E., Mihalko, S.L., & Bane, S.M. (1997). Exercise and self-esteem in middle-aged adults: multidimensional relationships and physical fitness and self-efficacy influences. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 20, 67-83.

Mueller, C., Field, T., Yando, R., Harding, J., Gonzalez, K.P., Lasko, D., & Bendell, D. (1995). Under-eating and over-eating concerns among adolescents. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 36, 1019-1025.

Palmer, L.K. (1995). Effects of a walking program on attributional style, depression, and self-esteem in women. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 81, 891-898.

Paluska, S.A. & Schwenk, T.L. (2000). Physical activity and mental health. Sports Medicine, 29, 167-180.

Pronk, N.P., Crouse, S.F., & Rohack, J.J. (1995). Maximal exercise and acute mood response in women. Physiology and Behavior, 57, 1-4.

Sonstroem, R.J. & Morgan, W.P. (1989). Exercise and self-esteem: rationale and model. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 21, 329-336.

Susan Gustafson is a personal trainer in the St. Louis, Missouri area. She can be reached at the following:

LifeLong Fitness, LLC
Susan Gustafson
Director of Health & Fitness
Suite 14
Clayton, MO 63105
(314) 863-6263

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