“Keeps my head together while I’m out of work” – Physical activity in the everyday lives of unemployed youth

(In Finnish: "Pitää pään kasassa työttömyysaikana". Liikunta työttömien nuorten arjessa)

Helena Huhta

The possibility of unemployed young people becoming passive and marginalized is seen a major concern. Many notions associated with unemployed youth are exaggerated and do not do justice to young people’s own active efforts in a life situation that is in many ways defined by the constraints of unemployment. The present study provides data on the effects of unemploy¬ment on young people’s engagement in physical activity. The study charted the quantitative and qualitative changes in exercise during the period of unemployment. The issues scrutinized in the report include the factors furthering and hampering young people’s physical exercise, the use of various exercise facilities, young people’s satisfaction with their opportunities for exer¬cise, their opinions on discounts for the unemployed, and the importance of physical activity in a life situation constrained by unemployment. The study material is a self-selecting online questionnaire returned by 789 young unemployed people aged 18–29.

The results show that the consequences of unemployment are twofold. The respondents fell into three almost equal groups, the first of which has reduced exercise along with unemployment, the second has exercised as much as before, and the third has begun to exercise more. Unemployment would also seem to polarize exercise behavior: those who exercise actively have increased their physical activity more often than others, and similarly, those who exercise little have reduced their physical activity more often than others.

The responses of the unemployed young people show that exercise introduces routines, meaning¬ful activity, social interaction, pleasure and feelings of success to their daily lives. It also provides relief from the stress created by unemployment. For many young people, physical activity is one of the few reasons to leave home and an important way of “keeping their heads together” in a difficult life situation. Some of the young people actively endeavor to take care of their physical and mental health. The greatest problems regarding exercise are linked to the costs of the hobby. Eight young people out of ten said that the expense was an obstacle to their exercise opportunities. Even if the expense is not evident in the quantity of young people’s physical activity, for many the meaningfulness of the exercise is reduced, for example when having to swap a group activity for jogging. At the same time, it should be noted that there are also those young people who do not have the energy to take care of themselves and who feel paralyzed and socially excluded. In their case, the benefits brought by exercise could be significant, but reducing the costs alone is not enough to activate them.

Along with measures aiming at employment and training, dealing with youth unemployment and its various risks should also pay attention to the young people’s leisure time. For an unemployed person, all time is leisure time, making this the arena on which they either keep up their well-being and a meaningful daily life, or become discouraged and marginalized.