Simple Strategies help to increase Physical Activity

Physical activity among children and adolescents decreases because different screens capture increasingly more attention. Different strategies can help people to return to times when playing basketball or football in the backyard was the most popular way to spend time after school. Photo from freemagebank.com
Physical activity among children and adolescents decreases because different screens capture increasingly more attention. Different strategies can help people to return to times when playing basketball or football in the backyard was the most popular way to spend time after school. Photo from freemagebank.com

The lack of physical activity among young people is a global problem, which is getting increasingly worse. According to WHO 81% of 11–17-years-old adolescents are not sufficiently active. Smart devices, parents driving children to school, spending leisure time by playing computer games at home not football in the backyard with other kids... all this affects the habits of movement. In Estonia researchers rated the physical activity of children and adolescents with “F”, failure.

This is why Andre Koka, Associate Professor of the Didactics of Physical Education at the University of Tartu, works to find effective interventions to increase physical activity behaviour among adolescents. Koka and Martin S. Hagger, Professor at Curtin University and University of Jyväskylä, researched ways of increasing physical activity by using mental simulations and action planning[1].

“Mental simulation directs a participant to imagine that he or she has succeeded in increasing activity. Action planning allows participants to decide and write down how, when and where exactly he or she plans to be more physically active. The advantages of these strategies are simplicity of execution and little consumption of time and resources,” Koka explained.

Martin S. Hagger added that it seems that improving people’s confidence (by getting them to imagine doing more physical activity and ways in which they can perform it) and getting them to plan physical activity (by having them to identify when and where they will do it) is important. “When people develop a goal—for example, to be more active or lose weight—, they don’t always come up with a specific plan or have a clear idea of how they will do it. These exercises help them plan and for people who have not been very active in the past, the strategies are effective in changing behaviour,” he said.

One Strategy at a Time gives Better Results

Koka and Hagger researched 267 Estonian adolescents (14–15-year-olds) who were divided into four groups: one group used mental simulation, one used action planning, one used the combination of both strategies, and one group did not use any of the strategies. The results showed that adolescents who employed one strategy became more active but using the combination, which was assumed to be the most efficient, seemed to diminish the effect of each component. “Adolescents using the combination perceived that action planning inhibited their need for autonomy and intrinsic motivation to be active,” Koka thought.

Koka mentioned that adolescents whose activity level is extremely low could be the main group to benefit from these strategies. “Thus, for example, teachers, health workers, parents could introduce these strategies to adolescents,” Koka said. He adds that promoting the strategies could be included into the learning process in schools, e.g., posters could be prepared about the topic.

Koka noted that school is a good place for spreading this information because basically all children and youngsters attend school. “Longitudinal researches show that physically active adolescents are more likely to become physically active adults. Physically active adults mean less expenditure for the health care sector in general,” which he identified as the strategies’ great benefit for society.

Effect of the Strategies needs to Last Longer

Koka has many plans for the future. First, he wants to use measuring instruments that are more objective than self-reporting: accelerometers. Second, earlier researches have showed that intervention programmes related to action planning could be more effective if people are encouraged to collaborate in achieving a shared goal. “As friends are very important to adolescents, it would be important to check the hypothesis that an intervention programme based on companions working together gives better results than a strategy based on working alone,” Koka explained.

What is more, in this research, the positive effect did not last very long—it disappeared in the second or third month. Koka sees that one idea worth testing is using modern technology, e.g., smart phones, to remind the strategies to adolescents.

Hagger said that the effect would be stronger if people could use the strategies more regularly and remember their plans and imagined situations. He also noted that these techniques can be used in other contexts where behaviour change is important as well. “For example, we have shown that the strategies are effective in reducing alcohol intake in regular and binge drinkers, and there is also research showing the techniques to be effective for diet behaviour and healthy eating, taking medications, and smoking behaviour,” Hagger added.

[1]Koka, A., & Hagger, M.S. (to be published). A brief intervention to increase physical activity behaviour among adolescents using mental simulations and action planning“. Psychology, Health & Medicine. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13548506.2016.1211298

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.