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President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports

Series 2, No. 6 Series 3, No. 11

July, 1996 Sept. 2000

Motivating Kids in Physical Activity
For many years interest in children’s physical activity has focused upon beneficial health-related outcomes, such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and obesity. From a social psychological vantage, however,the focus on consequences of physical activity precludes an understanding of the determinants of physical activity behavior. That is, what motivates children and teenagers to continue and sustain physical activity levels? Why is there such a dramatic decline in physical activity during adolescence, and how can we stem the tide of declining physical activity levels? Such a motivational perspectivehones in on possible intervention strategies that can be implemented by parents, teachers, coaches, and peer groups who play such an active role in the lives of youth in home, neighborhood, school, and sport contexts. Keeping kids motivated to participate in physical activities will then naturally lead to touted health outcomes. This article adopts a motivational stance in identifying the factorsthat strongly predict physical activity in kids. The Guidelines for School and Community Programs to Promote Lifelong Physical Activity Among Young People (CDC, 1997) highlights the contributions that social-contextual, psychological, and emotional factors play in youths’ physical activity behavior. Most notably, perceptions of competence (e.g., physical ability, physical appearance), enjoymentof physical activity, and social support by parents, teachers/coaches, and peers were cited as essential influences on physical activity in children and teenagers. Recent studies by sport and exercise psychologists provide empirical evidence for the role of these predictors of participation behavior, and specify the mechanisms by which these constructs effect change in behavior (Weiss, in press;Weiss & Ferrer-Caja, in press). Motivation is defined as behavioral choice, effort, persistence, and performance and can be translated to the physiological jargon of frequency, intensity, duration, and level of physical activity. Research on reasons why children and adolescents participate in physical activity (leisure-time activity, organized sports) consistently points to three major motives(Weiss, 1993a; Weiss & Ferrer-Caja, in press). First, youths want to develop and demonstrate physical competence, such as athletic skills, physical fitness, and physical appearance. Second, gaining social acceptance and support including friendships, peer group acceptance, and approval, reinforcement, and encouragement by significant adults (parents, teachers, coaches) is key to initiating andcontinuing participation. Third, fun derived from participation maximizes positive and minimizes negative experiences related to physical activity. Enjoyment is likely to enhance the attractiveness of the current activity and decrease the appeal of alternative activities (e.g., gangs, at-risk behaviors). In sum, research findings suggest that interventions designed to enhance perceptions ofcompetence, social support, and enjoyment will result in children and youth maintaining and increasing physical activity participation levels.

A Model for Understanding Physical Activity Motivation in Kids
The three major reasons for participating in physical activity are captured within Susan Harter’s (1987) model of self-esteem, which was adapted for the physical activity domain (Figure 1) by Weissand Ebbeck (1996). This model portrays the sources and consequences of self-esteem for physical activity behavior. Perceived competence/adequacy and social support represent determinants of self-esteem, and enjoyment and physical activity behavior are outcomes. Figure 1. Susan Harter’s (1987) mediational model of global selfworth customized for the physical domain.

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