Tales about Type and Physical Exercise

This article is reprinted with permission from The Bulletin of Psychological Type. The Bulletin is a publication of the Association for PsychologicalType.

Tales about Type and Physical Exercise
APTi Bulletin Vol.25 No. 3 (2002) By: Suzanne W. Brue

I have been studying type for over ten years, but I did not make the connection between type and physical exercise until a conversation with my mother (ESFJ) a year ago. She was describing her visits to a physical therapist for a torn rotator cuff. My mother is a lovable, friendly woman and true to type, she developed a personal relationship with her therapist who in turn gave her a lot of individual attention and positive feedback.

As my mom explained her exercises to me, I noticed the specificity of her descriptions. Comments such as, “I like to know exactly what I am doing,” “I want things spelled out,” and “I want to make sure that I’m doing the exercises correctly” stood out in my mind. These were familiar expressions from a lifetime of conversations, but I had never heard these concerns as expression of her preferences for FeSi until that day.

Sensing details have always assured and guided my mother. Even today, whether it is locking the door to her apartment when I am leaving or using her washing machine, my mom feels it is incumbent to state and restate the steps. These instructions are usually backed up with examples of some awful catastrophe that has befallen a neighbor or friend who was not being careful. So is it any wonder, in the context of working with a physical therapist or in physical exercise, the relationship and the specifics are prominent?

I began questioning my mother about her experience with physical exercise and sports over her lifetime. For many years, my mother played tennis doubles. She described “loving the game,” particularly the camaraderie with friends, as playing tennis was primarily a social activity for her, not physical exercise. Additionally, she and my dad {ESTJ} played golf with friends, an activity which she also described as primarily social.

Yoga was different. My mother considered yoga physical exercise. Inspired by a yoga-loving friend, my mother and her friend attended a series of yoga classes while wintering in Florida thirty years ago. Their teacher was “wonderful.” Under this teacher, my mother enjoyed yoga and was faithful to her practice. However, when the teacher moved to another city and the replacement teacher “was not the same,” my mother discontinued classes and has not since practiced yoga on a regular basis.

After my initial observations with my mother, I had lunch with my close friend, Iris, who also has ESFJ preferences. Iris is a jazz singer and a musical booking agent. Exercise is a task she feels that she must do because of her osteoporosis. Over lunch she said she recently joined a gym which she described as cleaner, smaller, and friendlier than her previous gym. In describing the new environment and staff, Iris said, “They know me, really care, and treat me as an individual.” She had high hopes that this new environment and friendly ambience would increase her motivation to lift weights and do aerobic activity.

This made me think about another friend with ESFJ preferences. Lee is an artist and professional game designer who rarely exercised until her mid-forties when she arranged for a personal trainer three mornings a week. The trainer designed a program for Lee and was at her side the entire time. Weights were carefully monitored. The trainer adjusted treadmill and bike resistance levels. On a nice day, they went for a walk together on a designated route. This went on for a year. When Lee eventually stopped working out with her trainer, she stopped exercising. She was unable to maintain the routine by herself.

Questioning, listening, and reflecting on how these three women with ESFJ preferences thought about and participated in physical exercise got me interested in researching this area. Their stories were similar and a pattern emerged. For these women, their relationship to the teacher/trainer was a key motivator. This leader provided interaction and feedback (usually positive) and served to guide and assure them that they were exercising correctly. “Doing it right” was important. The focus and clarity around Si details maintained their interest and motivation.

An exercise routine is difficult for many people to establish in their lives. Less than 20% of the population exercises regularly. Many people who do not exercise would like to, especially in light of the convincing health care benefits we see every day in research and the media. I believe it is difficult for so many people to maintain an exercise program because they attempt to exercise in a way that is incompatible with their type or stage of type development. They are doomed from the start.

Physical exercise is a big part of my life. I typically exercise one to two hours a day, six days a week. I struggle with a lot of things; I have never struggled with exercise. I was lucky to find exercise that worked for me over twenty years ago. I started swimming laps in an indoor swimming pool in 1980 and have been exercising on a consistent basis ever since. I have preferences for Extraverted Feeling and Introverted Intuition (ENFJ). I used to like to exercise alongside people but not directly interacting with them. Increasingly, I prefer to exercise alone.

I seem to be attracted to exercise that has a repetitive quality, but I enjoy various activities. I love to swim, run, bike, kayak, walk, lift weights and practice yoga. With repetition, my mind happily drifts (Ni). Visions well up, fade away, and well up again. I effortlessly explore unknown paths and suspend judgments for a while. Se is my third function, Puer/Puella according to John Beebe’s model, my “eternal child.” Perhaps that is why I love to exercise. Exercise makes me feel like a kid. In the last three years I have been training and competing in 5k and 10k road races throughout Vermont. I believe this new interest in competition is an expression of my developing fourth function (Ti).

My hypothesis is that our innate type preferences are connected with our approach and motivation toward physical exercise. Last year I launched a research project that has involved interviewing and surveying people of the various types who exercise regularly,collecting stories about their exercise habits and patterns. One of my early interviews was with a thirty-year-old massage therapist with preferences for ENFP. Roberta enjoys running and yoga. When I asked her for an overview of her approach to exercise, she responded without hesitation, “Exercise is all about the breath.” With warm enthusiasm she described her concept of spirituality and mind-body connectedness which underlies her approach to exercise.

Not long after my interview with Roberta, I interviewed the CEO of a local business. David is forty years old, thin, handsome, and fit. He has preferences for ISTJ. Prior to being at work in the morning, David exercises at a fitness center convenient to his office. He exercises five mornings a week, systematically rotating between cardiovascular and weights. He runs through the same program every week. “Are you happy with your level of exercise?” was my final question in our interview. David responded, “It gets the job done.”

What I am Learning

Although my research is still at the preliminary stage, the following patterns are beginning to emerge:

Extraverted Sensing

• Attracted to the highest level of sensory stimulation.
• Like active and lively sports that call for a quick response.
• Have a fun-loving approach to physical activity and sports.
• Enjoy using their outstanding ability to navigate.
• Like newness but prefer it to be a variation on what they know, not completely new.

Introverted Sensing

• It is important to exercise right.
• Like to practice what they have learned.
• Like to exercise in a way that has been tested and found to work.
• Routine is attractive.
• Safety is important.
• Exercise in an orderly manner in an orderly environment.

Extraverted Intuition

• Attracted to multi-tasking; often try to disguise exercise.
• Motivated by a wide range of stimulation.
• Often need to be distracted to stay with exercise.
• Can ignore physical needs and easily forget to exercise.
• Efficient approach to exercise.

Introverted Intuition

• Attracted to intensity.
• Repetitive motion is appealing.
• Like activities that allow for mental drift.
• Consciously limit risks.
• Prefer to know terrain.

Extraverted Thinking

• Exercise with a structure and plan in mind and follow it.
• People should exercise. It is the right thing to do.
• Regular and routine.

Introverted Thinking

• Figure out what works for them.
• Specific about instruction, if any, they are interested in receiving.
• Can exercise at any time of the day.

Extraverted Feeling

• Attracted to exercise that connects them to another person or people.
• Prefer attractive places to exercise.
• Environment needs to be friendly and harmonious.

Introverted Feeling

• Attracted to the individual experience.
• Like exercise with an underlying meaning, philosophy, or tradition.
• Exercise is often spiritual with a mind/body connectedness.

Research and Application

In developing the MBTI it was Isabel Myers’ goal that through the understanding of type, people would improve and enhance their lives. I am interested in furthering the research on type, type development, and physical exercise. It is my hope that people who are aware of their preferences can learn how others of the same preferences successfully integrate physical exercise into their lives. Such information can inform and inspire the non-exercising population to exercise, thus improving their overall health and sense of well-being.

I am interested in communicating with individuals in the type community who can provide information about their exercise habits and patterns. Please contact me at sbrue@adelphia.net.


Haas, Leona; McAlpine, Robert; and Hartzler, Margaret. (2001) Journey of Understanding. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Harris, Ann Singer. (1996) Living with Paradox. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.