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Young people and physical activity: a systematic review of research on barriers and facilitators. Summary

Physical activity promotion is high on the health policy agenda in the UK. Evidence regarding increased prevalence of obesity and inactivity among young people is mounting. Putting policy into practice means developing and implementing effective interventions for, and with young people. An important step in this process involves examining what we can learn from existing research. Our objectives were to provide practitioners, policy-makers and researchers with a summary of evidence to help them develop, implement and evaluate interventions for promoting physical activity among young people. We had a particular focus on young people from socially excluded groups and upon interventions targeting ‘structural’ or ‘environmental’ (e.g. access to facilities) barriers to physical activity.

Exhaustive searches were undertaken of multiple sources to identify relevant studies. The methodological quality and findings of studies meeting specific inclusion criteria were assessed using standardised tools. Two types of study were included: international studies evaluating the effectiveness of interventions, and UK studies examining young people’s own views about physical activity and how it might be promoted. A total of 28 studies met our inclusion criteria: 16 examined young people’s views and 12 were potentially rigorous evaluations of the effectiveness of interventions.

Many of the interventions were evaluated in schools, some of which also extended activities into the home and the community through seeking parental involvement. Peer influence was also explored. Reliable evidence on the effectiveness of these efforts was, however, scarce. When positive effects were detected these were restricted to young women. In terms of young people’s views, the vast majority saw physical activity as beneficial for both health and social reasons. Young women particularly valued the role of physical activity in maintaining weight and a toned figure, but unlike young men, they found that physical activity did not fit in well with their leisure time. Ideas for promoting physical activity included: increasing or modifying practical and material resources, such as creating more cycle lanes, making activities more affordable, increasing access to clubs for dancing and combining sports with leisure facilities; and more 'non-traditional' activities to choose from in school PE.

A comparison across study types suggest major gaps for research and development. The effectiveness of interventions that address or build on young people’s ideas have yet to be sufficiently evaluated. This is the case for the need for less traditional school-based activities including dance and aerobics, for modifications to PE organisation and teaching, and for additional community and personal resources or materials.

This report should be cited as: Rees R, Harden A, Shepherd J, Brunton G, Oliver S, Oakley A (2001) Young people and physical activity: a systematic review of research on barriers and facilitators. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. 

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