Date of Award




Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Department of Psychology


Clinical Psychology

Content Description

1 online resource (iii, 31 pages)

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

Julia Hormes

Committee Members

Drew Anderson


behavioral flexibility, cognitive flexibility, eating disorders, exercise, Wisconsin Card Sort, Eating disorders, Exercise addiction, Rigidity (Psychology), Adaptability (Psychology), Cognitive styles, Psychological tests

Subject Categories

Clinical Psychology


Objective: Cognitive and behavioral inflexibility, or the inability to respond flexibly and adaptively to changing environmental demands, are hallmark features of eating disorders (ED). Individuals with EDs exhibit inflexibility across domains, often including in exercise behaviors, manifesting as exercise dependence and rigid workout routines. The purpose of this study was to assess how different motives for exercise are differentially associated with cognitive and behavioral flexibility, a marker of EDs. To the extent that inflexibility in exercise is a risk factor and symptom of disordered eating, increasing cognitive and behavioral flexibility as it relates to physical activity may be an effective point of intervention for prevention and treatment of eating-related pathology. Method: Undergraduate students (n = 287, Mage = 19.2 years, 62.0% female, 52.6% white) completed validated measures quantifying exercise dependence and dimensions of intuitive exercise, as well as the Eating Disorder Flexibility Index (EDFLIX), a self-report measure of general and eating disorder-specific flexibility, and the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task (WCST), an objective test of cognitive and behavioral flexibility. Results: There were statistically significant differences between the Exercise Dependence Scale (EDS-21) “at risk for dependence” group and both “nondependent” groups in WCST perseveration errors, with the “at risk” group making the most mistakes. There was also a significant multivariate main effect of exercise dependence on EDFLIX general and ED-specific flexibility; with the “asymptomatic” group exhibiting significantly greater flexibility on the “Food & Exercise” subscale than the “at risk for dependence” and “nondependent symptomatic” groups. Intuitive Exercise Scale “emotional exercise,” “mindful exercise,” and “body trust” subscales were significant predictors of general flexibility, accounting for 18.8% of the variance in EDFLIX global scores. Discussion: Findings suggest greater flexibility in those endorsing intuitive exercise, and decreased flexibility in those endorsing rigid exercise and symptoms of exercise dependence, thus pointing to inflexibility as a transdiagnostic factor underpinning both maladaptive exercise and EDs. Research suggests that cognitive and behavioral inflexibility can be intervened upon transdiagnostically. Thus, targeting inflexibility in exercise may be an important point of intervention to increase eating-related flexibility and alleviating ED pathology.