Can walking ease the sting of social exclusion?

September 11, 2018

Students walking on campus of MSU.

Award-winning research from the Michigan State University Department of Kinesiology says yes.

Alumnus Anthony G. Delli Paoli and MSU researchers Alan L. Smith and Matthew B. Pontifex received the 2017 Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology Excellence in Research Award for their study that examined how and if walking could ease the sting of social exclusion. The award recognizes the most outstanding article published by the notable scientific journal each year.

Their study focused on 96 diverse female college students—an important group to study when discussing social exclusion, the researchers say.

“New college students often feel left out of social opportunities, text messages go unanswered, students leave classmates out of group work and romantic partners break up,” the authors said in their study. Social exclusion is common, and it can be difficult because humans feel a fundamental need to find acceptance with others.

The scholars wanted to know: Could there be a proactive task to help reduce hurt feelings from social exclusion?

Anthony Delli Paoli

Walking vs. sitting

The researchers looked for a task that was sustainable, easy and could be implemented with little to no burden. Research has long indicated that physical activity can have positive effects and even help with cognitive performance. With walking, in particular, past studies have indicated participants felt happier and more energized after a walk.

A group of volunteer students from the Department of Kinesiology were assigned to random small groupings: They watched a neutral educational clip while either sitting at a table, or walking on a treadmill. After meeting with fellow participants, they were privately separated, and asked by researchers to select a group member to work with. Later, participants either received neutral feedback (“We will be doing partner work soon”) or negative feedback (“No one chose you as someone they wanted to work with”). A variety of measures were collected including heart rate, affective states and cognitive function.

Matthew Pontifex headshot

Associate Professor Matthew B. Pontifex

Results indicated that all participants from the negative feedback, or “exclusion,” groups felt worse following the feedback, but that the individuals who were part of the sedentary group given negative feedback comparatively felt the worst of all.

The findings suggest that social exclusion has a substantial negative impact on someone’s mood—and that short bouts of physical activity prior to such occurrences, like walking, could help counteract that.

Merging expertise

The research was supported by the College of Education’s Summer Research Renewable Fellowship and a Summer Research Development Fellowship, awarded to Delli Paoli, M.S. ’13 and Ph.D. ’17 (Kinesiology). He now serves as an assistant professor at Manhattanville College.

“We are grateful that our students have opportunities to pursue these funds, and this award to Anthony exemplifies the kind of outcomes these support programs can produce,” said Smith, Department of Kinesiology chairperson and research co-author. “This work represents a merging of expertise from my lab and Dr. Pontifex’s lab, which Anthony successfully bridged to make a novel, impactful research contribution.”

Alan Smith headshot

Department of Kinesiology Chairperson Alan L. Smith

Related links

In 2017, Delli Paoli was recognized with an Excellence-in-Teaching Citation from Michigan State University and named as an Honorable Mention for the American Kinesiology Association (AKA) for the National Doctoral Scholar Award.

Smith is co-editor of “Advances in Sport and Exercise Psychology” (Human Kinetics, 2019), created alongside alumna and scholar Thelma Horn. The publication features strong representation from MSU, including alumni and current and former faculty.

Photo of students walking and Delli Paoli headshot courtesy of MSU Communications and Brand Strategy.