Scranton-Drexel Study Shows that Body Image, Eating Behavior Predict College Women’s Physical Activity over Two Years

December 22, 2016

Research shows less than half of college women achieve the daily level of physical activity recommended for weight control and overall health. But a recent study from The University of Scranton and Drexel University shows that there is considerable variation in physical activity across days, weeks, and months, though this variation rarely is measured.

Danielle Arigo, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at The University of Scranton and the study’s lead author, said that paying more attention to variability in women’s physical activity could be useful for improving health promotion programs.

“When we measure physical activity, we usually take daily assessments and average them,” Dr. Arigo said. “This glosses over physical activity differences on distinct days (and weeks and months). If we know more about what predicts a ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ physical activity period for college women over time, we can identify risky times for low activity, and use naturally-occurring processes to promote activity at those times.”

Toward this end, Dr. Arigo and collaborators at Drexel University conducted a follow-up analysis on data from a weight gain prevention study. That study recruited female students from two mid-Atlantic urban universities for a weight-gain prevention program. Nearly 300 women participated in the study, and engaged in five assessments over two years.

These assessments included wearing a pedometer for four days and completing questionnaires related to body satisfaction and eating behavior. Body satisfaction and eating behavior were selected as potential predictors of physical activity because they previously had shown cross-sectional relationships with activity.

The researchers examined variation in physical activity, as well as relationships between body image, eating behaviors and physical activity, across the five assessments over two years. The researchers found that more than half of college women’s physical activity variation was due to change and fluctuation over time. In fact, college women significantly decreased their physical activity over two years, and decreases were largest among women who started the study with higher BMIs. According to Dr. Arigo, this is a signal that health programs on college campuses should emphasize helping women to maintain their physical activity as they progress through college.

Moreover, Dr. Arigo noted, physical activity was highest at and following assessments when body satisfaction was lower than a women’s typical level of body satisfaction, and when perceptions of overeating were higher than a woman’s typical level. In other words, college women increased their exercise from their usual level after feeling bad about their bodies and after perceiving that they overate. These relationships were independent of weight change and actual calorie intake, suggesting that self-perception is extremely important for physical activity.

Dr. Arigo and collaborators noted that if a woman’s motivation for physical activity emphasizes improving appearance or controlling weight, she tends to have a tough time keeping up motivation over time. In contrast, motivations such as stress management and overall health tend to persist in the long haul. “Findings from this study underscore the need to promote consistent, health-based motivations for physical activity among women,” said Dr. Arigo. “And these findings identify specific targets of intervention (such as times of perceiving oneself as overeating) that can be useful for tailoring web and mobile programs for women.”

This study, which appears in the October issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine, was selected as the journal’s Editor’s Choice for importance to the field of behavioral medicine.

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