Social Influences on Exercise Levels

Social Influences on Exercise Levels

It is widely agreed that regular exercise is important to one’s social, emotional, mental and physical health. “Sufficient evidence exists for the effectiveness of exercise in the treatment of clinical depression. Additionally, exercise has a moderate reducing effect on state and trait anxiety and can improve physical self-perceptions and in some cases, global self-esteem[1].”

So what influences our level of physical activity?

In our Unit 2 Physical Education class, students have conducted their own research, looking at levels of physical activity at lunchtime in the Senior School. Based on the social-ecological model, physical activity is influenced on four levels: the individual’s knowledge, thoughts and skills, the physical environment and the social environment, for example the influence of friends and family.

After collecting baseline data, students devised initiatives targeting different activity spaces and levels of the social-ecological model. They made policy changes to open up new lunchtime spaces, such as the upper courts and hall. The individual level was targeted to increase students’ knowledge of the benefits of physical activity and skill levels in certain activities. Equipment was provided in all sporting spaces, targeting the physical environment.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until the social environment was addressed, where games were run in the hall, that significant increases in participation was experienced. It was clear in our research that social inclusion and interpersonal relationships were an important influence on lunchtime activity.

Following this, I began doing some research, to see if the trend of social influences increased physical activity in the broader community. I came across a New York Times report by Gretchen Reynolds who looked at a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management on the effect of social influences on runners. Five years of data was collected from a world-wide social network devoted to sharing objectively measured exercise routines from approximately 1.1million runners[2].

Participants in this social network uploaded data from a GPS activity monitor and became virtual friends with other like-minded people. From this data, researchers tracked exactly how often, how far and how fast each participant had run over a five year period. What they found was incredible. The results indicated that friends displayed similar training routines, even if they were separated geographically. Furthermore, if one person ran for 10 minutes more than usual on any given day, that runner’s friends would also lengthen their workout. Similarly, if a friend ran faster than usual, their friends would also increase their pace on the same days.

The effects were most pronounced, however, when a runner who previously had been slower and showed signs of overtaking another friend’s performance, the threat of falling behind would spur that friend to run a little bit harder. Interestingly, the data indicated that females were only influenced by other female runners, whereas male runners were influenced by both males and females.

The health benefits of physical activity extend far beyond physical health. With the increasing pressure of social media and pressure to achieve academic success, it is clear that time restraints on our leisure time are ever increasing. In order to achieve positive social, emotional, mental and physical health, we can ill-afford to neglect physical activity in our daily routine.

As this study demonstrates, positive social influences increase physical activity levels. So how do we influence students at St Catherine’s to increase their physical activity levels? As a School, we need to increase the opportunities for physical activity within the school day. As families, we must make time to be active as often as possible and as friends we must support our peers to exercise regularly, join sporting teams and enjoy being active. As individuals, we must surround ourselves with people who challenge us and make us strive to achieve our goals.

Mr Bradley Hicks, Physical Education and Personal Development Teacher and Years 7 and 8 Program Coordinator

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