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UCSB researcher says benefits of exercise might extend to social relationships

UCSB students and community members are participating in a study on how exercise impacts social relationships.
Beth Thornton
UCSB students and community members are participating in a study on how exercise impacts social relationships.

There’s already a lot of information out there about the importance of physical activity for health reasons, but UCSB researcher Paige Harris wants to know if the benefits of exercise help foster positive social interactions, too.

Harris is a PhD candidate in the department of psychological and brain sciences.

“My argument is that physical activity leads to these personal benefits and that these personal benefits might help enable people to better engage in their relationships,” she said.

She aims to build on the knowledge that exercise restores people’s emotional, cognitive and physiological capacities. But what sets her research apart is that she’s looking outward to see if physical activity changes how we interact with others, especially romantic partners and close friends.

For example, "Be more attentive or think clearer in terms of working through a problem with a friend or partner, or be more patient,” she said.

Harris is collecting data from UCSB students and the broader community. In phase one of her research, she asked individuals to keep a daily diary of their activities and interactions. She’s still sorting through that data, but so far, when people go for a run or walk their dog or take an exercise class, she said they report more relationship satisfaction on those days.

Phase two of Harris’s study will happen in the lab. Test subjects will either ride a stationary bike at moderate intensity or perform a passive activity. She will also conduct interviews and observe interactions.

“We’re also planning on measuring cognition and cognitive performance and functioning,” she said.

Harris received a grant from the National Institute of Social Sciences for her research. The grant is awarded to PhD students whose work can significantly advance their field.

Harris said she will have results sometime next year.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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