A Sociology of Physical Activity and Health for Young People

Gareth Wiltshire

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Background. Much research suggests that physical activity has important health benefits, yet many young people are disengaged with various forms of exercise. In light of this claim, various policies and interventions have been implemented to promote physical activity but, to date, have been largely unsuccessful and the target of some criticism. Reasons why many young people are relatively physically inactive are not well understood and current explanations rarely attend to sociological issues. Aims. The aims of this study were twofold; (1) to investigate the social processes which influence physical activity and health for young people, (2) to investigate ways to better promote physical activity and therefore reduce health inequalities. Methods. Twenty-nine participants aged 13-14 from 4 different schools in England took part in the study. Purposeful recruitment ensured sufficient diversity across gender, ethnicity, social class, ability, body shape, and self-reported physical activity. Over a seven-month period, various qualitative methods were used including focus groups, ethnomethodology and visual methods. Salient social theories were used to interpret the data. Findings.Findings. The interpretation of data resulted in four main findings; (1) health is a socially constructed concept that young people understand through particular structures of language, visual imagery and knowledge; (2) physical activity is sometimes seen as a purposeful practice aimed at increasing physical capital through burning calories and turning fat into muscle; (3) engagement in physical activity is often contingent on whether specific activities are directly endorsed/rejected by peers as socially acceptable/unacceptable activities; (4) physical activities and sedentary activities can be seen as social practices that young people take part in as part of a system of habitual dispositions. Implications. In order to reduce health inequalities, physical activity promoters might better account for these social processes. Suggestions for policy and practice include (1) using intervention strategies that move beyond individualistic conceptions of behaviour, (2) introducing a new vocabulary and imagery to the understanding of health, (3) reducing physical capital disparities in spaces where physical activity takes place, (4) encouraging and accommodating friendship groups in intervention designs, and (5) providing activities and spaces where young people’s habituses can be enacted. Conclusions. habituses can be enacted. Conclusions. Various social processes affect the extent and type of physical activity that young people engage in. Strategies to promote physical activity ought to account for these social processes. Sociologically informed qualitative research methods can contribute to knowledge in the field of physical activity and health.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Loughborough University
Award date19 Nov 2014
Place of PublicationLoughborough University
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


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