Physical activity insecurity is stopping youngsters from getting active

New research suggests that feelings of discomfort and unsafety are preventing some young people from being physically active - and more work is needed to create environments where they feel confident enough to exercise and play sport.

The study, led by researchers at Durham University from Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, explores how 55 young people aged 12 to 21 feel about engaging in physical activity such as sports, exercise and walking in public places.

Rather than focusing on the traditional barriers to physical activity, such as a lack of facilities, the researchers instead explore how young people feel about the environments associated with physical activity.

The researchers found that feelings of insecurity, worry and even fear were prevalent among the study group, who were all living in areas of England with high deprivation.

Some of the young people described their local park as being a place where they experienced harassment and were scared to go after dark.

Places with the potential to be ‘safe spaces’ for physical activity such as gyms, sports clubs and schools, were also viewed negatively by some of the group as places where they felt insecure, unsafe or uncomfortable.

Some of the young people who took part in the study were from the LGBT+ community.

Many reported fears of being bullied, feeling out of place, and feeling uncomfortable about the traditional male or female-only teams, changing rooms and sports as reasons why they avoided participating in physical activity.

The findings led the researchers to coin the term ‘physical activity insecurity’ to describe a limited ability to be active, reinforced by worries and experiences of feeling uncomfortable and unsafe.

The study has been published in the journal BMC Public Health.

Lead investigator Dr Caroline Dodd-Reynolds, Fuse Associate Professor at Durham University’s Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences, said: “We know that approximately 40 per cent of adults and 50 per cent of children in England don’t meet daily physical activity guidelines, and that’s been the case for many years.

“We also know that existing inequalities, for example where you live, can influence this.

“If we want to change that and make physical activity a more inclusive experience, then we need to better understand what is stopping people from being active.

“And we need to remove those complex barriers – particularly for young people if we want them to adopt, and importantly maintain, an active lifestyle early on.”

Dr Dodd-Reynolds adds: “There’s a lot of research about social and health inequalities and things like access to facilities for physical activity, but it isn’t just about having the opportunity to be active, it’s about what happens to these young people when undertaking physical activity.

“It’s also about the challenges they are facing due to their own feelings of insecurity and negative experiences of physical activity which we think can be reinforced over time.

“We need to listen to these voices when we’re developing policy and practice linked to physical activity and ensure that we’re including young people in decisions around positive and sustainable physical activity.”

The researchers highlight the need for accessible and affordable safe spaces where young people can meet in their communities and be physically active together.

And they say that ‘compassion, understanding and allyship’ of a trusted adult, such as a supportive teacher, may be critical for young people – particularly LGBT+ youngsters – to feel safe and secure enough to engage in physical activity.

Dr Dodd-Reynolds said: “We talk a lot about physical activity being good for health and wellbeing.

“But we need to think more about how we support young people to fully engage in physical activity in a way that is good for their mental health.”

The study is part of an ongoing body of work led by Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health.

Fuse brings together the five North East universities of Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria, Sunderland and Teesside in a unique collaboration to deliver world-class research to improve health and wellbeing and tackle inequalities.

This research was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) School for Public Health Research (SPHR), a partnership between nine leading centres of academic public health research excellence across England, including Fuse.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

Read the research paper here: Young people's experiences of physical activity insecurity: a qualitative study highlighting intersectional disadvantage in the UK

Last modified: Fri, 15 Mar 2024 11:20:11 GMT