The Power of Exercise and Belief in Self

Research in Edward McAuley's Exercise Psychology Laboratory includes a long-term study called HALT (Healthy Active Lifestyle Trial) that looks at the effects of aerobic fitness training on brain structure and function in older adults.

For Beckman Institute researcher Edward McAuley, the concept of self-efficacy is not only a theme in his research but a key to improving one’s quality of life.

‘Tis the time for fulfilling New Year’s resolutions, especially those promises involving exercise. That most common of resolutions is one Beckman Institute faculty member Edward McAuley knows well from his research focus on exercise and health psychology.

McAuley’s research has led him to believe that understanding one particular psychological factor, self-efficacy, could help people realize their intentions to exercise, as well as provide insight into other health-related issues. McAuley describes self-efficacy as a belief in one’s capabilities to execute a course of action. In the context of exercise, self-efficacy reflects the conviction that one has a mastery over their physical abilities and can achieve exercise goals.

McAuley has been interested in physical activity as an academic subject since his undergraduate days in his native England. He moved to America to teach, later earning a master’s from Virginia and Ph.D. from Iowa, with both degrees carrying a specialization in sport and exercise psychology. His research during both his graduate school days and as a faculty member has centered on the social psychology of exercise.

“My research focuses on the determinants of physical activity in older adults and the extent to which physical activity influences function and the quality of life,” McAuley said. “I always had an interest in activity and I always had a naïve, lay interest in psychology so I started to marry the two together. It just blossomed from there.”

McAuley’s research since joining Illinois in 1989 and Beckman a year later later has blossomed to where he has a large and active research group and is a leader in the field of exercise psychology research. The website for McAuley’s Exercise Psychology Laboratory (EPL) states that the group uses a social cognitive perspective approach to “examine how social, physiological, behavioral, and psychological factors influence

In practice that means designing experiments that test the effectiveness of exercise intervention strategies, probe the structure and function of the brain, and look at the effects of self-efficacy on exercise and overall health, including disorders like depression. McAuley said self-efficacy is an overarching theme in his research.

“We find that self-efficacy for physical activity actually influences the extent to which you are going to be active,” he said. “The more confident in your capabilities, the more likely you are going to be active. Once you are active, that in turn makes you more confident. That confidence has implications for psychological well-being, for adherence to health regimens, to improvements in functional performance, and reductions in functional limitations.”

McAuley’s group looks at outcomes such as regimen adherence and quality of life in a variety of experiments involving the psychology of physical activity.

“I’m interested in physical activity as a behavior, not something that only results in an improvement in physiological status,” McAuley said. “If we could bottle physical activity and sell it, none of us would work again. Getting people to be physically active on a regular basis is tremendously difficult.”

That is why one of his group’s projects, a National Institute on Aging (NIA) funded study titled FlexToBa, is looking at the effects of a DVD-delivered physical activity program on functional limitations and quality of life in older adults.

FlexToBa is built upon past intervention programs developed in the EPL that had shown some cognitive benefits for the test subjects but greater reductions in functional limitations and improvements in quality of life. FlexToBa incorporates flexibility, toning, and balance exercises, with the current study about halfway through testing 300 older adults from central Illinois for the effectiveness of the DVD-delivered program.

McAuley and Beckman Institute Director Art Kramer have an ongoing research line for the NIA called HALT (Healthy Active Lifestyle Trial) that is looking at the effects of aerobic fitness training on brain structure and function in older adults. In addition, McAuley and his group are collaborating with Southern Illinois University Medical College to develop and test an intervention for enhancing and sustaining physical activity behavior in breast cancer survivors.   

The theme of self-efficacy is not only a constant in the exercise psychology research done in McAuley’s lab but also can, he said, play a role in many other areas.

“It’s implicated in depression, many aspects of mental health and diet,” he said. “It’s a pretty broad construct.”

In a paper published in 2009, McAuley was lead author on the report showing that self-efficacy can play a key role in reducing depression and fatigue.

Using data from previously published studies involving breast cancer survivors and people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the researchers found a correlation between higher levels of physical activity and higher self-efficacy, as well as lower levels of depression and fatigue. When self-efficacy was controlled for, they discovered significantly reduced effects of physical activity on fatigue and depression, demonstrating that a feeling of mastery over a physical activity can help to reduce depression and fatigue.

If we could bottle physical activity and sell it, none of us would work again. Getting people to be physically active on a regular basis is tremendously difficult.
– Edward McAuley

McAuley’s lab includes a roster of more than 20 researchers, including undergraduate and graduate students, project coordinators, exercise leaders, medical personnel, research assistants and a postdoctoral fellow. In addition, McAuley has supervised a long list of Ph.D. candidates over the years. He sees teaching students and mentoring budding researchers as key to his success.

“I started as a high school teacher of English and Physical Education so education has always been important to me,” McAuley said. “I’ve always argued that your research informs your teaching and your teaching can inform your research. My biggest goal is to see my students have a very good experience here, be very supportive of them, and ultimately for them to go out and do well for themselves. I’m happy to say there are quite a few who have done that.”

McAuley, a member of Beckman's Human Perception and Performance group, has collaborated with Kramer on topics of physical activity and aging often over the past 15 years, as well as working with several other Beckman faculty members.

 “The whole interdisciplinary nature of Beckman is perfect for what I do because I think neither Art nor myself could necessarily answer the questions we want to answer on our own,” McAuley said. “You have faculty from all over the campus at Beckman and you have the opportunity to collaborate with people, to look at a problem in a different way, and for people to say ‘oh I could work that into what I do.’”

McAuley doesn’t just study or promote the benefits of physical activity; he practices it by walking four-and-a-half miles, six days a week. Before coming to America, he was a semi-professional soccer player in Europe.

“I played midfield and striker,” he said. “I have the knees and ankles to prove it too.”

McAuley said he gave up playing competitive soccer a long time ago, but did coach his two children on park district and travelling elite teams for 11 years, with both going on to play college soccer. No doubt his children’s success had something to do with a sense of self-efficacy instilled by their father.

“My students know I refer to it as the key to life but they know what my biases are,” McAuley said with a laugh.