What Motivates Teens to Exercise?

What Motivates Teens to Exercise?

Traci Pedersen

Unless actively involved in sports, many students entering high school drop their activity levels to a minimum, setting the stage for sedentary-related adult diseases. In a new pilot study, researchers set out to investigate what types of energy levels and mindsets tend to prompt teens to exercise. For example, are teens more likely to exercise when they are feeling down? Or when they are feeling good and energetic?

The findings show that when it comes to exercise, teens are far too unique in their mindsets and motivations to use a one-size-fits-all intervention.

“You might assume that if you had higher positive affect and felt energetic, you would be more likely to exercise, but we found that this is not true for everyone,” said study leader Dr. Christopher Cushing, assistant professor of clinical child psychology and University of Kansas (KU) Life Span Institute assistant scientist.

“For some of our participants, feeling happy with lots of energy predicted exercise, while for others the relationship was in the opposite direction.”

For the study, 26 adolescents reported their mood and energy four times a day for 20 days with an Android smartphone app developed by the KU research team.

The students were asked to rate positive affect (feeling happy), negative affect (feeling sad) as well as whether and to what degree they felt energetic or fatigued. The researchers then combined those reports with physical activity data collected from an activity tracker that the teens wore 24 hours a day.

Cushing said that this is a big advancement in the field of health behavior.

“If you think about the kind of advice a clinician would want to give to a patient, this study shows that adolescents are too different from each other to rely on a one-size-fits-all recommendation that is typical in practice. We need to know something about the person before giving a standard set of advice.”

A long-term goal of this research is to design an intervention system that would personalize prompts based on each individual’s optimum times to exercise as gleaned from data collected from reported internal states.

Cushing said that they were also able to answer the question of whether adolescents would even want to participate in this kind of study — one that required a lot of time and energy throughout the day. The study got a very high response rate and nearly all of the participants said they would do it again if their physician asked them to in order to better understand their health.

“Teens are willing to do it if they think they’ll learn something about the relationship between how they feel and important health behaviors they are interested in tracking or improving,” he said.

The researchers want to focus on increasing the physical activity of adolescents because high school is a time when most adolescents drop from a pattern of moderate activity to the kind of minimal activity that predisposes them for diseases as adults.

“We want to help them find opportunities for leisure time physical activities outside of the structure of school, and we think it makes sense to do that in a way that is personalized for each adolescent,” said Cushing.

“By the time a person reaches adulthood, patterns of behavior are relatively well-established. We think it is a harder proposition to get an adult off of the couch after they have slipped into a pattern of inactivity than to help an adolescent who is moderately active maintain some of that activity as they age into adulthood.”