Given the high levels of physical inactivity today and the associated health consequences, understanding and increasing people’s physical activity has been one of the most prominent goals of researchers in kinesiology. In line with the broader research interests within our Group Dynamics and Physical Activity Laboratory, my latest paper, “Social norms and physical activity in American and Canadian contexts: a scoping review,” examined how social norms, which are the unwritten social rules and pressures, can influence physical activity.
Despite the fact that human beings are highly social in nature, past research traditionally has not found that these unwritten rules and pressures are important factors in increasing an individuals' physical activity. To find potential explanations for the weak relationship between social norms and physical activity, I worked collaboratively with two former Laurier master’s students (Emily Dunn, Kayla Rellinger) and two current faculty members (Jennifer Robertson-Wilson, Mark Eys) in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education to conduct a large review of the existing literature.
Through an extensive search, we identified and reviewed 137 relevant research studies that examined this topic. Our results demonstrated that the methods by which researchers have conceptualized and measured social norms might account for the overall weak relationship between social norms and physical activity. When considered more specifically, the previous findings suggested that people may be influenced more by the internal pressures they feel by observing other individuals being physically active (i.e., a descriptive social norm) rather than explicit pressures from others such as being told to be physically active (i.e., an injunctive social norm).
The results also highlighted that individual willingness to comply with social norms must be also considered, in conjunction with the pressures that they feel. Our paper offered some different perspectives that future researchers may consider when examining social norms, which may help clarify our understanding of how social norms can impact physical activity behaviours.
Overall, the most surprising or unexpected moment of the project has been our contention that these unwritten rules and pressures may be greatly underestimated in terms of their impact on an individuals’ physical activity behaviour. The lack of support found in previous work may simply be a by-product of the choice of methods and comparing apples and oranges.
The most impactful part of this research for me has been searching and sorting through thousands of research articles, I have come to appreciate (even more) the countless numbers of researchers who put in the hours on a daily basis to make important contributions to advance scientific knowledge. Without them, public efforts in promoting physical activity will be ineffective and uninformed. This experience has raised my sense of duty as a researcher to conduct high quality research that can contribute to the academic discipline and help contribute to the goals of health promotion.
I am currently working on a project that focuses on the two main suggestions offered from the paper described above: considering social norms in relation to (1) its' descriptive (i.e., watching other’s behaviours) qualities in addition to the injunctive (i.e., explicit pressures) qualities, and (2) individual motivation to comply with such pressures in conjunction with the pressures that they feel.
Ultimately, my goal with this line of work is to provide more information regarding social norms in relation to physical activity that can be used to create and implement effective intervention programs to increase physical activity levels of the general public.
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