Do Active Children Become Active Adults? Investigating Experiences of Sport and Exercise Using the 1970 British Cohort Study

PhD thesis
Physical activity
Public health
Education policy
Sport policy

Parry W


February 1, 2015


Leading a physically active lifestyle is known to provide a wide variety of health benefits, from reduced risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, to improved mental well-being and healthy weight maintenance. Despite this, the majority of adults are not sufficiently active to benefit health.

Government has consistently sought to increase levels of physical activity in the population (as well as develop elite sport talent) by focusing policy on the promotion of traditional, competitive sport in schools. The main rationale for this approach is that children who play lots of sport in school will continue participating as adults.

The academic literature has frequently criticised the focus on traditional, competitive sports, citing evidence that they have limited appeal to many children, exclude those with lower levels of skill and fitness, and may be counter-productive in terms of promoting lifelong activity. There is, however, scant prospective, quantitative evidence available to support either perspective.

The research presented in this thesis uses longitudinal data from the 1970 British Cohort Study, and robust statistical methods, to identify how childhood experiences of sport and exercise develop between primary and secondary school, and how they are associated with adult exercise behaviour. Hypotheses based on government policy assertions and academic theory are tested.

The findings provide little support for government policy: the cohort members’ participation in school sport was not independently associated with their exercise behaviour in adulthood. In contrast, there was consistent support for academic theory. Parental and family influences (posited by family socialisation theory) were consistently identified as key determinants of sport and exercise experiences, both in school and in adulthood. Likewise, an interest in physical fitness in childhood (i.e. intrinsic motivation, as described in self-determination theory) also affected adult exercise behaviour.

The findings are used to suggest alternative approaches by which government might encourage physical activity in the population.

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