exercise research

Exercise research -What influences exercise in adulthood?

Promoting sport and exercise to adults may be an expensive waste of time. People are most likely to be active – and remain active – as adults if they have enjoyed sport and exercise in childhood and adolescence. That’s the clear implication of a pair of recent studies examining factors associated with adherence to exercise in adulthood.

The first of these, carried out in Israel, involved 3,818 Jewish men from a variety of industrial settings who participated in the Cardiovascular Occupational Risk Factors in Israel Study (CORDIS) in 1985-87. Information on leisure time physical activity (LTPA) was obtained from a number of questions in the questionnaire and those currently taking part in LTPA on a regular basis – ie at least once a week for half an hour – were grouped together.

When they were compared with non-participants across a range of demographic and occupational variables, participation in organised school-age sporting activities emerged as a strong predictor of adult physical activity, reported by two-thirds of active adults compared with less than one-third of inactive ones. This strong association remained when a more rigorous definition of adult activity (half an hour for five days or more per week) was used.

‘Our findings, in a cohort of predominantly middle-aged industrial workers, are consistent with other work showing that organised sporting activity as a child and adolescent predicts LTPA as both a younger and older adult,’ comment the researchers. ‘Participation in organised after-school sports may provide youth with a skill set and enjoyment of sport that help form the foundation for activity habits later in life… Efforts that lead to increasing levels of childhood physical activity may lead to a more physically active adult population.’

In the second study, from Finland, researchers studied 117 sets of identical male twins aged 35-69 to examine factors associated with enhanced adherence to exercise in adulthood. Exercise in childhood and adolescence and participation in competitive sports had been shown in earlier studies to predict exercise participation in young adults under 30, and the researchers wanted to know, among other things, whether this influence persisted throughout adult life.

Factors thought to be associated with exercise were analysed in relation to the amount of exercise performed per week from age 18 onwards. Analysis of the data showed that adulthood exercise was predicted by just two variables: participation in exercise and competitive sports in adolescence. Education, marital status, number of children, number of changes in residence, number of chronic diseases, smoking, alcohol use, and leisure time activities other than exercise and sport were not associated with adulthood exercise level.

‘Our results suggest,’ conclude the researchers, ‘that early childhood environmental factors strongly influence exercise level throughout the lifespan. Therefore, interventions aimed at enhancing lifelong exercise participation may achieve more beneficial long-term results by targeting families and other childhood and adolescent environments.’

Med Sci Sports Exerc, vol 35, no 12, pp2038-2042, 2003

Int J Sports Med 2003;24:499-505

Isabel Walker

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