Research suggests making exercise more fun might boost fitness levels of US adolescents

December 05, 2005

CHAPEL HILL -- By now, most Americans probably realize that U.S. teens exercise too little. The natural result is a growing population of physically unfit and overweight youth more prone to various serious illnesses later in life.

Experts agree that that's a national public health threat that will not disappear anytime soon.

Now, a new small-scale study suggests what motivates teens to get moving. The research, led by a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate student, found that the strongest single factor causing teens to exercise was "personal fulfillment." In other words, it was fun and made them feel good.

Weight loss, peer influences and urging by parents also influenced some youth to become active, but only minimally, said Katie Haverly, who wrote a report appearing in the December issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The young woman earned her masters at the State University of New York -Albany and is working on a doctorate in the UNC School of Public Health's health education and health behavior department.

"Our study explored what motivates adolescents to be physically active since so many youth today are increasingly overweight and sedentary," Haverly said. "Understanding what gets them moving is important to consider in creating public health interventions to increase physical activity."

Adolescents were significantly more likely to participate in sports and other vigorous activities if they enjoyed the process and wanted to improve their fitness and physical skills, she said. It was somewhat surprising that friends, parents and hoping for weight loss showed weaker effects.

"People may not think that adolescents would view physical activity so much in this way, and it is perhaps something we can take advantage of in getting teens to exercise," Haverly said.

The study, which she conducted under the direction of Dr. Kirsten Krahnstoever Davison of SUNY-Albany's health policy, management and behavior department, included students at low and high risk of being physically inactive during middle school. Among them were overweight teens, girls and those who less athletic than others, Haverly said. It involved having more than 200 students complete several questionnaires each about what led them to be physically active and how much they exercised, and analyzing the responses carefully.

"Regardless of risk status, personal fulfillment -- not outside pressures -- was what stood out as most important motivating for youth and was the only factor that was consistently associated with significantly higher levels of self-reported physical activity," she said."If we can somehow make physical activity more rewarding and enjoyable, especially to overweight adolescents, that could encourage them to keep at it, even if their rate of weight loss is much slower than they anticipate."

Limitations of the study included its relatively small size, that all the students attended the same Pennsylvania middle school and that it relied on students' reports of how much they exercised and why.

"Regardless, we think this work shows that personal fulfillment is a concept that should be further explored in more in-depth research with larger, more diverse groups of students," Haverly said.
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Note: Haverly can be reached at (919) 260-2674 or haverly@email.unc.edu.
News Services contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596
School of Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, (919) 966-7467

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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