Off the couch and on to the treadmill

Exercise and Young People - Getting the Buggers Fit - The Social Psychology of Exercise and Sport
September 16, 2005

The interface between sport, exercise and health is very much a live topic. We know that we are in danger of becoming couch-dwellers. These are people who do little or no exercise (save the overuse of their thumbs for remote controls and game consoles); who eat too much calorie-rich food; drink too much alcohol and become susceptible to a range of chronic physical illnesses including asthma, arthritis, diabetes and heart disease.

In Europe and North America, there has been a dramatic fall in physical activity over the past 50 years. Jobs have become less physical, people are more likely to take the lift than climb the stairs and adults and children are more likely to travel to work or school by car than to walk or cycle.

We also know that physically active people have a lower risk of dying from these chronic illnesses and that physical activity enhances mental health, fosters healthy muscles and bones and helps maintain health and independence. The explicit message of these three books is that we must do something to increase physical activity or suffer the consequences.

Exercise and Young People , edited by Lorraine Cale and Jo Harris, takes the view that physically active young people are likely to be healthier and grow into adults who do not smoke, eat well and are less troubled by illness. In ten chapters, the book examines the evidence that young people are indolent (probably overestimated), but if active are likely to be healthier (equivocal but probably true). It makes a distinction between physical activity, exercise and sport.

The book explores the problem of measuring physical fitness and activity in a valid, reliable and practical way and examines the determiners of active and sedentary lifestyles. It looks at the problem of exercise dose or prescription, which is often complicated by culture and the shifting nature of physique and maturation. The contributors also delve into how best to disseminate information (making exercise "cool" is by all accounts no simple matter) and consider models and theories of promotion in general and in schools in particular. The result is a readable, well-organised and invaluable reference book for those with an academic or personal interest in the area.

In Getting the Buggers Fit , Cale and Harris address the practical problem of increasing activity in young people. They try to understand the special case of children, who should not be considered in any sense as miniature adults. What distinguishes this book is its "hands-on" approach and emphasis on education and school. The authors make the point that children's physical activity takes place in the context of the National Curriculum. They note that physical education now incorporates health-based programmes rather than a sport-oriented acquisition of skills.

The book argues that there is a broad and diverse (for which read patchy and inconsistent) interpretation of health-related exercise in schools.

Having a set of recommendations is one thing but getting a whole school to internalise a particular approach is quite another. If one can create a school that is generally positively disposed towards physical activity, the maintenance of activity is much easier.

This is no trivial matter, and the authors offer many useful and practicable solutions, which are are bolstered by case studies. The book's final chapter is a goldmine of information on governmental, commercial and charitable resources available to promote and develop physical and sporting activities for children that seems doomed to go out of date very quickly.

But that cannot detract from a useful handbook that will serve teachers and school governors well. The book combines theory, rules and guidelines with sensible, doable solutions, and it is written in an accessible and engaging style.

The Social Psychology of Exercise and Sport is aimed at a more academic audience. It is rather text-dense, but it makes an excellent attempt to put exercise and sport in the context of being with others. Its strength is that it focuses in detail on just some aspects of a diverse area. The book is in two parts - exercise and health, and sport.

The health chapters adopt a theoretical perspective and emphasise the social nature of participation in health-promoting behaviours. They focus on several social cognitive models of behaviour that propose that people are rational decision-makers who make choices about what they do by constructing intentions that are translated into actions by volitional theories.

This is intrinsically related to ideas about motivation. For example, the health-belief model proposes that an individual's intention to adopt a healthy behaviour results from his or her perceived vulnerability to an illness and a judgment about the likely severity of that condition. The decision about whether to engage in the behaviour comes down to the perceived benefits weighed against the behaviour's likely cost.

Authors Martin Hagger and Nikos Chatzisarantis also point out that the notion of the self is important in trying to understand health behaviour.

This is a truly social notion because we get most of our ideas about the self by comparing ourselves with others. In the context of self-perception, exercise and dieting are the only ways that individuals can change their physical appearance and thus modify their sense of self and the way that others perceive them. This area also touches on notions of self-esteem, body image and so on. The sport section takes motivation, emotions, group interaction and aggression as its main themes. Again employing a theoretical approach, it explores thoroughly the social psychological theories that apply to the area.

Motivation is taken as a social cognitive construct that describes the intention of an athlete's readiness to engage in a sports skill. One chapter explores the attributions an athlete makes when he or she experiences success or failure, and assesses the impact of notions of self-efficacy. Emotions are covered in the context of the relationship of anxiety and mood to performance. The chapter on group interaction examines the issues and dynamics of being part of a team.

Aggression is a social psychological theme that exercises theoreticians, pundits and commentators alike. The central problem has always been tied up with how it is defined. If we say that someone is a good aggressive player, we probably do not mean that he or she tries to kill a competitor with a javelin. This use of the term clearly muddies the water. Various theories of aggression in sport are considered in some detail, as are its mediators within different sports. All of this adds up to a comprehensive academic book that has little competition in its area of emphasis.

Murray Griffin is a chartered psychologist and a senior fellow at Essex University where he performs research on green exercise and imagery.

Exercise and Young People

Editor - Lorraine Cale and Jo Harris
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 6
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 1 4039 0252 6

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