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April 9, 2024
by Patricia Tomasi

New Study Looks At Long Term Recreational Exercise Patterns In Teens And Young Adults

April 9, 2024 08:00 by Patricia Tomasi  [About the Author]

A new study published in PLOS ONE looked at long-term recreational exercise patterns in adolescents and young adults.

“The study investigates long-term patterns of recreational physical exercise in young Australians during the transition from youth to young adulthood,” Associate Professor Oliver Schubert of the University of Adelaide’s Adelaide Medical School told us. “We hoped to get a better understanding how many young people engage in, stick to, or change recommended exercise volumes between the age of 15 and 25. We also hoped to learn more about the factors that make it more likely or unlikely for young people to establish healthy long-term exercise habits.”

The researchers didn’t know which patterns to expect as no one has done such a large study before in this age group in Australia, over such a long period of time. Because the positive health effects of exercise are well established, they hypothesized that regular long-term recreational exercise patterns over time would be associated with better health and wellbeing once the young people in the study had turned 25.

“We additionally hypothesized that known risk factors for low exercise participation in teenagers, such as female gender or social disadvantage, would also be risks for less favourable long-term behavioural patterns,” Schubert told us. “We know that people establish health behaviours quite early in life and maintain these behaviours over many years, sometimes decades. Therefore, it is important to understand who gets into which habits, and why. With better understanding, policy makers and organizations interacting with young people, such as schools or universities, can target health and lifestyle promotion and support to those most in need.”

Using data from a large, nationally representative database, the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth (LSAY), the research team tracked the recreational physical exercise patterns (i.e. exercise outside school, study, or work) of more than 9000 young Australians over eight years, from the time they turned 16 to the time they were 24. Within that large cohort, they modelled smaller groups of people who followed particular patterns over time, such as maintaining regular exercise, dropping their exercise levels, or never getting enough exercise. From that, they tested whether known teenage risk factors for exercise participation also predicted long-term patterns. They were also able to see if favourable exercise patterns were associated with better health, mental health, and vocational outcomes by the time young people turned 25.

“We found that fewer than 1 in 5 young Australians (17%) between 15 and 25 stick to daily physical exercise, as is recommended,” Schubert told us. “About eight per cent of young people don’t seem to engage in much physical exercise at all. Overall, there was a trend for decreasing exercise frequency over time. On the positive, most young Australians (about 70%) exercise at least once a week, and quite a large group (about 40%) increase their volumes towards the daily recommendation, as they get older.”

The researchers also found that known risk factors for insufficient exercise in teenagers also predicted the long-term trends. Those young people who did a lot of exercise at 15, and spent less time in front of screens, were also more likely to keep up the good habit. Females, young people from disadvantaged social backgrounds, and those with low levels of self-efficacy (i.e. the belief that they can achieve things they set out to do) were at risk of less-favourable long-term habits.

“As predicted, higher volumes of recreational exercise, maintained over a long period of time, were associated with better ratings of health, mental health, and wellbeing at age 25,” Schubert told us. “Even people who exercised very little as 16-year-olds but picked up later had measurable benefits in these health domains. In our dataset, there was a link between high academic achievement at age 15 and less favourable long-term habits, which we found surprising. We think this may reflect the pressure some young people feel during the transition from high school to university, which may lead to the neglect of their physical health needs.”

The research team believes their findings could be helpful for public health policy makers and people in charge of school and university physical-wellbeing programmes, because they show which young people are at particular risk of poorer exercise participation.

“Specific programs could be designed to attract and support these groups, and systemic and infrastructure barriers for them should be removed,” Schubert told us.

About the Author

Patricia Tomasi

Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog:

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