Physical Activity for Life

Exploring the idea that we can promote “physical activity for life”.

In this blog I intend to seek clarification of what it means to promote “physical activity for life” and identify some literature that provides us with a better and more informed perspective. At present the idea of promoting  “physical activity for life” appears to be a ‘taken-for-granted’ assumption that has become an ‘unthinking preference.

There are a number of different conceptions of promoting “physical activity for life” or “lifelong adherence to sport, dance, adventurous pursuits in the outdoors or other forms of active recreation”.

One conception is that individuals (young people and adults) make a commitment to being physically active (sport, dance, adventurous pursuits in the outdoors or other forms of active recreation) as an integral part of their current lifestyle. This could be seen also as an aspiration that may become a long lasting commitment throughout their lifespan but there is no guarantee.

The second conception is that physical education in schools has an aspiration (one amongst many) to promote a variety of physical activities that will inspire young people to make them a central part of their lifestyle outside of school. In addition, there is a secondary aspiration that good experiences of physical education will promote a lifelong adherence to being physically active (in sport, dance, adventurous pursuits in the outdoors or other forms of active recreation). This is sometimes called the ‘PE effect’.

Green (2012) makes the point that there is little or no evidence that ‘normal PE’ in schools has had or is likely to have an impact on regular levels of physical activity in the short and medium-term or even long-term participation.  In this case, there is little likelihood of any health outcomes. It could be argued that like health, the idea of promoting long-term participation is simply another ‘taken-for-granted assumption’ by society.   It must be recognised also that though PE teachers can have a positive impact on young people’s lives they could also have a negative effect and put children off from being active (and also for life!).

In his article Green quotes Roberts (2009, p.216) to raise the point that participation in physically active pursuits may be the result of many causes. “This article has, among other things, acknowledged the near-impossibility of achieving any kind of certainty regarding a ‘PE effect’ on youth sport, let alone lifelong sports participation, not least because ‘most patterns of behaviour have multiple causes’ “

In fact, Green argues that the precise nature of the relationship between the processes associated with the positive effects of physical education (further participation beyond school in youth and adult participation in sport or other physically active recreational pursuits) are seldom explored because they are simply treated as, what he calls, a ‘truism’.  Green’s paper provides an excellent source for clarifying and understanding what is associated with proposing that we should promote “physical activity for life”.  His references lead us into a comprehensive range of papers that can help colleagues to examine the argument in more detail.

The third conception is that health promotion recognises the value that regular physical activity can have on people’s health and wellbeing so they campaign to encourage adults to become more physically active as a lifestyle choice.  Their aspiration represents the idea that people will value their involvement in physical activity and this will stimulate them to maintain their involvement across the lifespan.  In the same way, it is a hope that young people will also learn to value being physically active and as a result recognise how it enriches and energises their life:  young people may not seen any connection with their health and wellbeing.

In these three conceptions the aspiration for lifelong adherence may be an aspiration too far.  It could be argued that such an aspiration is far too ambitious and beyond our reach.  The reality is that in the transitions from childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and into adulthood there are considerable behavioural changes, challenges and ‘hang ups’ that influence the priorities people place on what they want to do in their lives. As a result, these priorities determine the patterns that emerge to shape our lives.

Also, the aspiration for “lifelong adherence”, whether it is in school or adulthood, is something that is much more complicated and as an unknown factor it may well be beyond our capabilities.  Can people be held responsible for seeing their current commitment to being active as one that becomes a lifelong commitment?

To my thinking, the key to maintaining a ‘long term commitment to something’ is the choices that people have learned to value and become a priority in their lives.   It is not a commitment to physical activity but to a pursuit that is seen as purposeful, rewarding and enriches their life and is integral part of the way they live.

This blog can only provide an introductory insight into the complexities of this concept highlighted in this blog.  There is a need to develop a much more careful deliberation in using the term “promote physical activity for life” or  “lifelong adherence to sport, dance, adventurous pursuits in the outdoors or other forms of active recreation”.  It represents a long term aspiration and for this reason I would argue that there is a need for a ”here and now” aspiration with a careful consideration of multiple causal mechanisms for enabling young people and adults to value being active and recognise the impact it can have on their health and wellbeing and their daily lives.

It is hoped that this blog will stimulate further debate and bring to the forefront a careful analysis of the pros and cons of promoting “physical activity for life” and address this “taken-for-granted assumption”.

Readers will find further debate in the following publications:

Evans, J. & Davies, B. (2010) Family, class and embodiment: why school physical education makes so little difference to post-school participation patterns in physical activity, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 23(7), 765?784.

Green, K. (2012). Mission impossible? Reflecting upon the relationship between physical education, youth sport and lifelong participation. Sport, Education and Society, 2, 1–19. doi:10.1080/13573322.2012.683781

Pot, N., Verbeeka, J., van der Zwana, J. & van Hilvoordeab, I. (2014) Socialisation into organised sports of young adolescents with a lower socioeconomic status. Sport, Education and Society. DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2014.914901

Roberts, K. (2009) Key concepts in sociology (Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan)