Prior attempts to measure psychological responses to exercise are potentially limited by a failure to account for participants' expectations, the absence of a valid exercise placebo, and demand characteristics. The purpose of this study was to explore the main and interactive effects of a manipulation designed to increase expectations about the psychological benefits of an acute bout of active, light-intensity (treatment), and passive (placebo) cycling on mood and cognition. Demand characteristics were attenuated during recruitment, informed consent, and interactions with test administrators by communicating to participants that the study purpose was to assess the effects of active and passive cycling on respiration, heart rate, and muscle activation.
A repeated-measures, randomized, placebo-controlled design (n = 60) was used with cycling (active, passive) and information (informed, not informed) as between-subjects factors. State anxiety, feelings of energy, and working memory (percent accuracy and reaction time for correct responses) were measured at baseline (time 1), immediately after cycling (time 2) and 20 minutes after cycling (time 3).
Most participants did not guess the purpose of the study (~92%) or expect a reduction in state anxiety (85%) or an increase in energy (80%) or cognitive performance (~93%). Mood and cognitive performance were not improved by active or passive cycling (all p values ≥ .12).
The methods used here to disguise the experimental hypotheses provide a potential framework for reducing demand characteristics and placebo responses in future investigations of psychological responses to exercise.
From the Department of Kinesiology (Lindheimer, O'Connor, McCully, Dishman), University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.
Address correspondence and reprint requests to Jacob B. Lindheimer, PhD, Department of Kinesiology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2000 Observatory Dr, WI 53706. E-mail: Lindheimer@wisc.edu
Received for publication March 16, 2016; revision received May 12, 2016.