Can walking ease the sting of social exclusion?
A Michigan State University study conducted last year has won two kinesiology researchers and an alumnus a national award for their work exploring how walking might reduce the negative effects of feeling socially excluded or left out among peers.
Alumnus Anthony G. Delli Paoli and researchers Alan L. Smith and Matthew B. Pontifex received the 2017 Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology Excellence in Research award earlier this summer.
Recognized as the most outstanding article published by the journal, the study focused on 96 diverse female college students, a demographic that the researchers indicated was an important group to investigate and understand.
According to the authors, new college students often feel left out of social opportunities. For example, text messages can go unanswered, students leave classmates out of work groups and romantic partners break up. Social exclusion is common, and it can be difficult because humans feel a fundamental need to find acceptance with others.
As a result, the research team wondered if there could be a proactive task to help reduce the hurt feelings that often occur from being left out.
Walking vs. sitting
The researchers looked for a task that was sustainable, easy and could be implemented with little to no burden. Previous studies have long indicated that physical activity can have positive effects and even help with cognitive performance. With walking, in particular, participants have felt happier and more energized after a walk.
Students who volunteered from the Department of Kinesiology were assigned to random small groupings – some groups watched a neutral educational clip while sitting at a table, and other groups did the same while walking on a treadmill.
After viewing the video, each participant was separated and then privately asked to select a group member that they would want to continue working with moving forward. The feedback was collected and participants either received a neutral response indicating that they would be partnering again soon with someone or negative feedback indicating that they weren’t chosen as a work partner.
A variety of health measures were also collected at the time, including heart rate, affective states and cognitive function.
As expected, results indicated that all participants from the negative feedback, or exclusion groups, felt worse than the neutral response groups. Yet the individuals who were part of the inactive, sitting group that were told no one wanted to work with them, comparatively felt the worst of all.
While the findings suggest that social exclusion has a substantial negative impact on someone’s mood, short bouts of physical activity prior to such occurrences, like walking, could help counteract any hurt feelings.
The research was supported by the College of Education’s Summer Research Renewable Fellowship and a Summer Research Development Fellowship.