Tracking of inactivity. Longitudinal study on the changes of physical activity relationship (PAR) among young people who are not very active

Markku Vanttaja, Juhani Tähtinen, Tuomas Zacheus, Pasi Koski

In Finnish: Liikkumattomuuden jäljillä. Pitkittäistutkimus vähän liikuntaa harrastavien nuorten liikuntasuhteesta ja liikunta-aktiivisuuden muutoksista


This study examines changes in physical activity and physical activity relationship (PAR), and also meanings and personal experiences of physical exercise based on surveys on the same children and young people from Turku carried out at two different times (in the years 2003 and 2013) and on biographical interviews on young people (8 individuals) who are not very active. The main focus of attention is on the young people who are not very active, but the study also examines issues and factors regarding the physical activity and PAR among more physically active young people. In total 2,032 children and young people from Turku responded to the survey and 689 (response rate 35%) of these responded to the follow-up survey in 2013. The survey placed the young people into different groups according to their physical activeness, and asked what changes had taken place in physical activity over the decade, which factors had weakened or strengthened interest in physical exercise, and also what kinds of experiences with physical exercise the young people who were not very active had at different stages of their lives and how these experiences had changed their PAR.

In contrast with previous interpretations regarding socialisation of physical activity, the study highlights susceptibility to change rather than constancy as a characteristic of children’s and young people’s physical activeness. Both the less and more active individuals experienced changes in physical activeness throughout life. Of those who were not very active in 2003, only one-fifth of the pre-school aged children and one-quarter of the school aged children were placed in the group of those who were not very active in the 2013 survey. Therefore, according to the results, a low level of physical activity as a child and during the early years of adolescence is not as likely to continue later on in life as one may assume on the basis of previous studies. However, one must be careful when generalising the results, as the share of individuals who are not very active, particularly in the older age group, was rather small in this study.

The key factors responsible for children’s and young people’s interest in physical exercise were most frequently friends, sports clubs and parents. For those who were not very active, these parties had much less influence than they did for those who were more physically active. Though the majority of young people had a positive attitude to physical education at school, very few felt that the school and physical education teachers had had a very significant impact on their interest in physical exercise. There were also clear differences in attitude to physical education among the groups of individuals with different levels of physical activeness: a much larger share of those who were not very active had a negative attitude to physical education compared with those who were more physically active. Around one-quarter of young adults who were not very active had such bad experiences at school and of physical education teachers that they felt that these had distanced them from physical activity. Also in the biographical material, many young people had strong negative memories of physical education. However, it is worth mentioning that the teenagers’ experience of and attitude to physical education in 2013 were far more positive than they were among the young people of the same age in 2003. One explanation for the big difference in attitude to physical education among the two age groups could be the recent deve¬lopments in physical education.

In both age groups and in all physical activeness groups, the most important reasons for doing physical exercise were related to health and fitness, relaxation and enjoyment and social factors. However, these factors were less important for those who were not very active. Based on the study, the key reasons for doing physical exercise seem typically to remain the same from childhood until an older age. According to the survey, teenagers and young adults who were not very active rarely exercised because they felt they were lazy with respect to physical exercise, they did not like the competitive aspect of physical exercise and they had not found a suitable form of exercise. The difficulty finding a suitable form of exercise was, above all, one of the most typical reasons preventing teenagers from being more physically active. However, young adults mentioned lack of time as the reason for their lack of physical activity far more frequently than the teenagers. In addition to these above-mentioned four main reasons, other reasons mentioned frequently in both age groups were unpleasant experiences related to physical exercise and lack of enjoyment of physical activity and exercise. Both the factors motivating and the factors preventing people from doing physical exercise had a tendency to stack up. The more physically active a respondent was the more likely it was that there were several motivating factors. Correspondingly, various factors that prevented and made it more difficult to do physical exercise also often stacked up for people who were not very active. The stacking up of factors preventing someone from being physically active was related to poor self-image regarding physical exercise, lack of interest in physical activity and a general lack of appreciation of physical exercise, among other things.

The biographical interviews of young people who were not very active often highlighted very similar reasons for lack of physical activity as the survey material. The young people’s accounts also showed that ending a physical activity hobby and changes in attitude to physical exercise took place at different ages and turning points in life for different people. Factors related to ending a physical activity hobby or a reduction in physical activity were also very different for different individuals and the same person could have several different factors in their life history that had an impact on the matter. Based on the young people’s accounts, experiences of physical exercise after early childhood at school and sports clubs were particularly important for the development of a positive relationship with physical exercise and strong physically active identity. For example, the young people in sports clubs said in their interviews that the excessive competitiveness reduced their enthusiasm for the physical activity and for many this was one of the main reasons for no longer wanting to do this hobby. The accounts also indicated that even very similar situations related to physical activity can be experienced in very different ways, and different experiences can change the physical activity identity and attitude to physical exercise. If we want to increase the physical activeness of people who are physically inactive, we should plan ways to increase activity by taking into account these individuals’ very different life histories and changes in their life situations.

Keywords: physical exercise, physical inactivity, physical activity relationship, children, teenagers, young adults, longitudinal study