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Fewer couch potatoes in Dunedin than Glasgow

Media Release
3 February 2002

Fewer couch potatoes in Dunedin than Glasgow

Community support for being physically active pays off

A study that compares Dunedin teenagers with those of similar age in Glasgow, Scotland has just been published in the prestigious international journal Social Science and Medicine.

The study is the result of a long collaboration between researchers working with the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study at the University of Otago and Dr Patrick West of the MRC Social and Public Health Service Unit, Glasgow.

Dr Tony Reeder, who coordinated the Dunedin end of the research, said that there was increasing concern about the many negative health consequences resulting from low levels of physical activity among young people. In order to develop effective ways of promoting healthy activity it was important to understand the factors that influence participation.

Comparisons made between different countries could provide valuable insights, Dr Reeder said. To date, there had been very few cross-national comparative studies, mainly because study design and co-ordination was so demanding.

At each location, the study was based on information obtained from students when interviewed at age 15 years and, again, among those who had left school, at 18 years. The proportions that participated in activity, the range of different activities and
differences in participation between males and females were calculated.

In both Dunedin and Glasgow, there was a major decline in activity over the three-year period. Reductions occurred both in the proportions participating in activity and in the range of different activities reported.

On average, young people in Dunedin participated in a greater variety of activities, both organised sports and informal activities, such as cycling, with greater frequency. Some of the differences between Dunedin and Glasgow were particularly striking. The
total amount of activity was greater in Dunedin than Glasgow - 20% more among males and 70% more among females at age 15 years.

By age 18 years, the difference was even more marked, especially among females - in Dunedin, 90% maintained at least some activity, whereas in Glasgow only one in three females reported doing any physical activity at all.

Among those who actually participated in activities, however, there were only minor differences between the two locations in the extent of that participation. It seemed that location affected whether or not they take part, Dr Reeder said, rather than the level of
participation among those who were active.

There were many similarities in the social and physical environments of Dunedin and Glasgow. Social class patterns were similar and contributed relatively little to differences in overall participation. The temperate climate and physical environment were also comparable, apart from Dunedin's ocean location.

Opportunities for water based activities were greater in Dunedin, but these only contributed 4% to total activity at 15 and 7% at 18 years in Dunedin.

Higher rainfall in Glasgow could dampen some outdoor activities, but that did not seem to affect soccer participation, Dr Reeder said, so it probably played a minor role. Overall, although Dunedin had some natural advantages, these were considered not sufficient to explain the pattern of differences found.

In both places, the school was the major source of physical education and support for sports activity, Dr Reeder said, although there was less teacher support for extra-curricula
activities in Scotland. Since the time of measurement around 1990, however, curriculum changes have occurred in both places.

A key difference between Dunedin and Glasgow was the apparently greater cultural support for participation in activities and, for school leavers, the better provision of community sporting and recreational facilities in Dunedin.

Post-school participation is related to "opportunity structures" - the facilities and social support for being physically active. In Glasgow, participation in a range of activities previously undertaken at school had virtually disappeared by age 18 years, particularly dramatic reductions occurred in activities that largely relied on school provision, for example, basketball, netball and hockey.

The role of the school for maintaining female activity seemed to be particularly important in Glasgow, where the problem for females was maintaining any activity at all. In Dunedin, the higher cultural value attached to structured activities probably extended to include the less formal physical activities, such as running, walking and cycling which contributed significantly to the difference between the two locations, especially for females.

"The most effective public policy goals should be to reinforce social support for activity and help make it easier for people to become involved and to stay involved in their preferred activities," Dr Reeder said.

Although activity levels were higher in Dunedin than in Glasgow, there was much room for improvement. In New Zealand, overall, about one third of the adult population do not
engage in sufficient activity to maintain health.

"There are two key messages for New Zealand here," Dr Reeder said. "First, there is a need to prevent the drop off in activity that occurs during adolescence, through providing social support for a full range of preferred sports and recreational activities.

“Second, to encourage those who are already inactive, we need to further increase the value placed on being physically active through mass media promotions to back community activities like 'Push Play.' In New Zealand, it seems that we are moving in the right direction," Dr Reeder said, "but there is still a long way to go."

For further information:

Dr Tony Reeder
Social & Behavioural Research in Cancer Group*
Department of Preventive and Social Medicine
Dunedin School of Medicine

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