Young people’s exercise attitudes and habits are influenced by parents, peers and fitness tracker goals as they strive to achieve the bodies they see on social media.
Ongoing research at Loughborough University is looking at how social influences are connected with compulsive exercise in under 16s. Compulsive exercise is characterised by an intense and rigid drive to exercise, despite illness or injury, and as a way to manage negative emotions.
The team – Kalli Reynolds (doctoral researcher), Dr Carolyn Plateau and Professor Emma Haycraft – has reviewed current research on the subject and conducted focus groups and interviews with schoolchildren aged 12-16 years from around the UK.
Youngsters were asked questions about how different social influences impacted the way they felt about and engaged in exercise activities.
Adolescents reported enjoying exercise activities they did as a family. Sometimes it was important for them to take part in exercise activities enjoyed by their friends to feel part of the friendship group.
One pupil who took part in the study said: “I’d join in with what my friends are doing, because I’d enjoy that more”.
However, the researchers found that young people commonly experienced pressure to exercise from parents and peers, and felt pressure to meet the prescribed exercise goals on fitness trackers.
One pupil said: “My brother always has to go on runs because my dad says he needs to get fitter for rugby, he doesn’t always necessarily enjoy it, but he still does it.”
Another added, in relation to fitness trackers: “. . . some days, you won’t even get close to finishing [your goal] and I think that you consciously feel worse about yourself if you haven’t done it.”
The adolescents also reported adopting exercise behaviours that they thought would help them to achieve the body types they saw on social media platforms.
PhD student Kalli Reynolds, who conducted the research, said: “Adolescents seem to be surrounded by exercise-related messages from their friends, family and social media”.
“They told us that they feel pressure to engage in exercise or will take part in exercise to copy the behaviours and body types of others.
“During the study, the participants talked about feeling pressure from their parents and friends to take part in exercise activities.
“Some participants reported exercising because their parents told them to, even if they did not want to exercise”.
“Some participants also told us that it was important for them to achieve a certain level of ability in the activity to avoid being teased by their peers.
Dr Carolyn Plateau further commented that “these findings are important for helping us to understand about what factors drive adolescents to engage in exercise.
“While physical activity promotion is recommended, it is important that exercise is healthy and engaged in for the right reasons so that it doesn’t become compulsive and harmful.”
Kalli is in the process of writing up the findings of the research and is also conducting a year-long study to see how social predictors of compulsive exercise could change over time and across adolescent development.
The final results of this study are expected by September 2023.