Making activity a natural part of life

Children RunningOne of the keys to encouraging young people to stay active is understanding why they don’t.

Researchers in our Health and Use of Time group are involved with national and international projects analysing the factors that impact on the opportunities available to children and teenagers, the choices they make, and possible ways to influence those choices.

 The big picture will come through the International Study of Childhood Obesity, Lifestyle and the Environment (ISCOLE), a 12-nation survey that focuses on physical activity, diet, the school and home environments, and weight status.

Professor Tim Olds and Dr Carol Maher are the Australian investigators for the study, which is working with 6,000 10-year-old children (plus their parents, teachers and others) from Europe, Africa, the Americas, South-East Asia and the Western Pacific. Data collection has been completed and the amalgamated data sets should be available very soon.

“This is the really dominant paradigm in our area of research at the moment,” Professor Olds said.

“There are lots of different levels impacting on people’s behaviors, from the intrapersonal level to the community level and finally the big environmental level over the top – the built environment and the like. We are trying to capture all of those things.”

An early finding of note is that access to sporting facilities and equipment may not be quite as important as people tend to assume. The highest activity levels among the 12 nations are in developing countries, where equipment may be little more than a ball – if that.

This has parallels with research Prof Olds, Dr Maher and colleagues carried out in Australia. They found that while children from more affluent families tend to play more sport and get more exercise, it is not necessarily because their schools have better facilities.

“Australian schools actually have good facilities,” Dr Maher said. “Even the poor schools have playgrounds and ovals and usually a policy that encourages physical activity. So that is not the driver. There are other things at play.”

Research suggests one of those things is a mixture of culture and peer pressure – a matter of whether being active is seen to be acceptable, important or even cool.

Dr Maher and colleagues are now exploring whether something very much considered cool – social media – could be an effective and cost-effective recruitment aid.

They are developing a Facebook app (with working title “Get Up Girl”) that will encourage and assist teenage girls to increase their daily activity levels and get fitter.

There are no set goals or exercise regimes: simply the challenge to try to take 10,000 steps a day (a not-inconsequential eight kilometres) as part of their normal day. The model has already been trialled with new mothers, and preliminary results suggest “Adelaide Mums Step It Up” is achieving results.

“Social media offers an opportunity to intervene in a way that's never been possible before,” Dr Maher said. It’s a combination of a mass campaign, which previously would have involved expensive advertising, with a group dynamic that in the past you could only have achieved in a class setting.

“It’s pretty novel. No one else is doing this. There’s been a few other groups who’ve tried to use Facebook to intervene but they have tended to do it more using Facebook as a forum, creating a private group and having people post questions and advice. And to be honest those studies haven’t tended to get very promising results.”

Prof Olds said it was a sad reality that in our modern world physical activity was separate from daily life. It was seen as a choice (often one wrongly associated with effort and expense) and people had to want to choose it.

Much of the work being carried out within the Health and Use of Time group focuses on the transition periods in people’s lives, when they are likely to be more open to make changes and new decisions. Many of those key transitions occur in the childhood and teenage years, as young people move through school.

For more information on the Sansom Institute research activities please visit our webpage.

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