Study Says Physical Activity Improves Self-Control

Want to Have Self-control? Exercise is the Answer!

Having problems with impulsivity or self-control? Exercise could help, according to a study headed by a scientist from University of Kansas.

According to the study headed by Michael Sofis, a doctoral student in applied behavioral science, tailored physical activity helps improve self-control. The link between the two is significant especially on the effect of exercise on delay discounting. Delay discounting means the tendency to choose an immediate reward over a larger reward in the future.

Sofis said, “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. 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. That has been linked to obesity problems, gambling and most forms of substance abuse.”

Sofis asserted that a change in one’s ability to value future events might keep maladaptive behavior in check and increase the likelihood of making healthy choices.

The KU co-authors of the study are composed of Ale Carrillo and David Jarmolowicz.

man exercising
Man exercising.

The Study and Results

To examine if exercise could trigger changes in delay discounting, the researchers recruited participants. Each was instructed to walk, jog or run laps on a track at “individualized high and low effort levels.” They also recorded participants’ own perceived effort.

The researchers used an individualized approach in the study, where participants rate their perceived effort on a scale of six to 20. The researchers slowly increase participants’ effort and tell them how much they will enjoy it.

In addition, the 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. The team tested delay discounting before, during and after treatment, and during maintenance. A standardized 27-item delay discounting task called the Monetary Choice Questionnaire generated results.

The results were very interesting. The researchers found statistically significant improvements in delay discounting were evident. Researchers first saw improvements during the treatment phase of increased exertion. Those improvements were also 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.”

The researchers suggested that every single person at least improved their delayed discounting to some degree.

Sofis pointed out, “If anyone just exercises, it’s likely you will show some improvements. We need more evidence to draw definitive conclusions, and 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 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.”

Mina Fabulous follows the news, especially what is going on in the US State Department. Mina turns State Department waffle into plain English. Mina Fabulous is the pen name of Carmen Avalino, the NewsBlaze production editor. When she isn’t preparing stories for NewsBlaze writers, she writes stories, but to separate her editing and writing identities, she uses the name given by her family and friends.