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Teaching Adolesence

Why Do Only Some Youth Become Physically Active Adults?

Although most people know that physical activity is important for health, the majority of Americans are not active enough. The decline in physical activity, along with other factors such as poor nutrition, is linked to rising rates of obesity, leading to higher healthcare costs and lower quality of life. However, some people are active; what makes them different?

Research supports the common sense idea that enjoyment is an important factor in determining physical activity levels, and theories like flow have pointed to the ways in which people find optimal or peak experiences in all types of activities. I think that having these positive experiences in physical activity contexts can help people develop more active lifestyles as they seek out more positive experiences and become more open to opportunities to participate in active pursuits. Especially in an era when diverse types of physical activity are becoming more available (e.g., Zumba, circus arts, and rock climbing) and there are countless opportunities for people who want to be physically active to do so, people may develop interest in being active (or not) through unique trajectories of experience.

However, there are also some pathways shared by people with physically active lifestyles. For example, regular sport participation in adolescence is associated with physical activity in adulthood, and participating in a variety of athletic activities in childhood can lay the groundwork for future activity participation by helping youth build physical literacy (i.e., the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to engage in physical activities for life). Even within these commonalities, participation in sport is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. There are differences in how much, how often, and in what ways youth participate in physical activity, and young people change their patterns of participation across adolescence for a variety of reasons (e.g., lack of support or access, burnout, or changing preferences).

To help address the question of how some youth become physically active adults, my colleagues and I looked at adolescent patterns of participation in athletic activities, teens’ perceptions of their own athletic competence, and their depressive symptoms, athletic participation, and overall health as young adults. Our study included youth in grades 7 through 12 (with a young adult follow-up) and identified four “classes” of individuals, who we labeled according to their pattern of participation: Non-Participation (making up 12% to 22% of the sample at each time point), Low Involvement (making up 16% to 31% of the sample at each time point), Moderate Involvement (making up 11% to 29% of the sample at each time point), and High Involvement (making up 27% to 46% of the sample at each time point).

Our findings include the fact that higher levels of athletic involvement in high school were associated with young adult participation and general health, whereas being highly involved in sport at the end of middle school was linked to lower rates of young adult depressive symptoms. These results support prior work on the long-term impact of adolescent sport participation on physical activity, and links between activity levels and adolescent mental health. However, they further suggest that there is no one point in adolescence when it is most important to be highly engaged in physical activity, and complicate the idea of a straightforward positive relationship between physical activity in adolescence and young adult behaviors and health.

In addition, youth with these different patterns of athletic activity involvement also differed from each other in self-perceived athletic competence. How physically competent youth perceived themselves to be was related to both how much and how many physical activities they were involved in and also whether they increased or decreased their participation the following year. This finding may be unsurprising, as few people would choose to participate in activities they aren’t good at, but it raises the question of when these feelings of competence (whether accurate or not) are developed and how we can intervene in childhood to help more youth feel competent enough to participate. For example, Active for Life has a database of activities for children ages 1 to 12 to develop physical literacy, and the new national standards for K-12 Physical Education in the United States emphasize the goal of developing individuals with the “confidence to enjoy a lifetime of healthful physical activity.” Parents and teachers can use these resources to help children develop skills they can be confident in, and can help youth to increase their proficiency in activities they particularly enjoy. As noted earlier in this post, having positive experiences in physical activity contexts may also help people gain the confidence to continue to participate. Therefore, communities should strive to provide opportunities for all children to have experiences of success and enjoyment in physical activity contexts.

Thus, although our research has provided some insight as to the factors that may contribute to youth becoming active adults, it has raised additional questions in the process. How can parents, programs, and policies best foster athletic competence in children, facilitate athletic participation in adolescence, and ensure opportunities to continue participation in adulthood? What other factors promote athletic participation at different points across the life span and how can they be provided to more youth? How can individuals who were not active as children develop the physical literacy and confidence to engage in and enjoy active lifestyles as adults? The answers to these questions, which arise at the intersection of research and practice, can enable a shift toward increased physical activity and health for all.

Jennifer Agans, Ph.D., is the Assistant Director of the Program for Research on Youth Development and Engagement in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research at Cornell University. Her research focuses on youth and adolescent involvement in organized out-of-school time activities, with the goal of helping youth programs understand how they can best promote positive youth development and thriving, including engagement in and enjoyment of healthy physical activity across the life span.

Image by Franz Pfluegl


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