Mind the gap: exploring the decline in physical activity at the transition stage of adolescence in Glasgow youth

Cowley, Joseph (2017) Mind the gap: exploring the decline in physical activity at the transition stage of adolescence in Glasgow youth. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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This thesis aimed to investigate physical education, physical activity and sport (PEPAS) participation and the adoption of health behaviours in Scottish adolescents. To address this topic, I start with a general reflection on the current state of Scottish health, through the lens of the Scottish and nested Glasgow effects. Subsequently, building on this conceptual base, I outline a series of three studies to further investigate the linkages between PEPAS and accumulating life stress and health behaviours. Accordingly, the thesis narrative consists of 4 distinct research outputs (1 desktop study, followed by 3 studies involving the collection of primary data). These studies were arranged as follows:

In Chapter 4 (research study 1), I suggest that a confluence of social, environmental, attitudinal and cultural stressors may combine to negatively influence biological health. The core conclusion of this conceptual paper was that PA may provide a highly efficient, and cost-effective means to remediating some of the issues underpinning the Scottish effect.

Chapter 5 (research study 2) presents data comparing patterns of PA uptake in adolescents of low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds with more affluent age-matched peers. SES is a significant biopsychosocial stress-elevating consideration. These findings add to mounting evidence suggesting excessively accumulating life stress, not only diminishes health, but simultaneously reduces PA uptake in vulnerable populations. The outcomes of this study thus emphasise the negative relationship between excessive life stress and PA, and highlight that there may be a bidirectional relationship between these factors.

Chapter 7 (research study 3) qualitatively investigates the barriers and facilitators of PEPAS and exercise in the broad general education (BGE) phase of CfE in Scotland. Focus groups were conducted with 39 secondary school pupils (S1-S2). This study adds context-specific information highlighting the role of self-image, perceived competence and social influence on PEPAS participation. Subsequent findings indicated that the delivery of traditional PE lessons, which prioritise sporting ability, act as a participation barrier to pupils who consider themselves ‘non-sporty’.

Chapter 8 (research study 4) builds on Chapter 7 by qualitatively investigating why young people in the post 16 phase of CfE discontinue participation in exercise, sport and PA, whilst analysing reasons for this post compulsory education decline in PA. Previous negative PE experiences were perceived as a major barrier to continued PA. Furthermore, this young cohort perceived that PE teachers focused primarily on physically capable students. Respondents also perceived that access to contemporary fitness activities would be a positive option both during PE lessons, and as a tool to promote lifelong PA.
Key conclusions emanating from this thesis included:

PA levels were significantly lower in those who had experienced greater accumulated life stress. Thereby suggesting that excessively accumulating life stress not only exerts a negative effect on health, but simultaneously reduces PA uptake in vulnerable populations.
Activities where individuals felt singled out, such as fitness testing, present significant barriers to PEPAS. Similarly, an overly competitive, performance-based curriculum acted as a barrier for those who self-identified as ‘non-sporty’.
Many 16-18-year- olds see current cultural fitness trends as preferable to the range of activities traditionally promoted within PE.
It was perceived that previous negative PE experiences acted as a barrier to continued PA into adulthood.

A core finding arising from this thesis is the recommendation that promoting lifelong PA habits, particularly in those at risk of elevated life stress, should be a fundamental objective of educators. Furthermore, evidence uncovered during this thesis suggests that PE should be structured around pedagogical models promoting self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation. Also, it is suggested that, during the senior phase, PE should be repackaged into an attractive compulsory brand. Finally, the implementation of current fitness and exercise trends, may prove an effective strategy in promoting lifelong activity and health and wellbeing.

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