The Football Players

The Social Dimension of Physical Activity

How important is the social dimension of physical activity? Recent modeling research published in PLOS One suggests that it’s critical. Ensela Mema and colleagues developed a mathematical model to estimate both social and non-social influences on physical activity across the population. They found that social influences were critical for maintaining physical activity or reducing sedentary activities. The authors explain:

“Complete absence of social or peer influences resulted in long-term dominance of sedentary behavior and a decline of physically active populations. Social interactions between sedentary and moderately active populations were the most important social parameter that influenced low active populations to become and remain physically active. On the other hand, social interactions encouraging moderately active individuals to become sedentary drove exercise persistence to extinction.”

Insights from a Special Population

It’s worth noting that the insights of this study come from a special population. The authors relied upon physical performance data from the United States Military Academy for their observations. They explained this as an important limitation because the academy population is a closed and very active environment. It may not be reflective of other military or civilian environments.

But Consistent with Other Observations

Nonetheless, these findings line up reasonably well with an earlier study (2002) of individual, social, and physical environment determinants of physical activity. In their study, Billie Giles-Corti and Robert Donovan examined these factors for 1,803 working adults in Perth, Australia. They found that social factors could nearly quadruple the odds of a person meeting recommendations for physical activity. They summed up their findings:

“Overall,the results suggest that the likelihood of exercising as recommended was greatly enhanced in those with positive individual factors and a positive social environment conducive to exercising. A supportive physical environment as measured by this study had a significant,but a more moderate,influence.”

We Are Social Creatures

Certainly, people are very diverse in their needs for social interactions. But without a doubt, we are social creatures and we’ve learned a lot about this dimension of ourselves with a pandemic that isolated us for an excruciatingly long time. Individual factors and the physical environment both matter for keeping us active.

But research is telling us that the social dimension of physical activity can be critical.

Click here for the Mema study and here for the Giles-Corti study. For further perspective, click here and here.

The Football Players, painting by Henri Rousseau / WikiArt

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November 28, 2022