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
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
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
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.
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Susan Gustafson is a personal trainer in the St. Louis, Missouri area. She can be reached at the following:
LifeLong Fitness, LLC
Director of Health & Fitness
Clayton, MO 63105
Copyright © 2001 by Excel At Life, LLC
Permission to reprint this article for non-commercial use is granted if it includes this entire copyright
and an active link.
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.