A Look at Our Latest Paper: Social Predictors of Change in Physical Activity among College Women

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Our new paper in Psychology of Sport and Exercise takes a look at associations between within-person change in perceptions of the social environment and physical activity in college women. This project began in 2016 at The University of Scranton and involved several undergraduate research assistants, including current CHASE Lab Ph.D. student Kristen Pasko (who went on to coordinate data collection). The final product represents a collaboration with Dr. Jacqueline Mogle of Penn State’s ReMind Lab.

Based on our previous work with college women (see here, for example), we were interested in how daily changes in these women’s appraisals of their social experiences (i.e., positive vs. negative social interactions and social comparisons) might be associated with changes in their activity (i.e., steps and moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity, or MVPA). College women who were not student athletes and did not use technology to track their activity were asked to complete a baseline survey and attend an initial face-to-face training session. For the following 7 days, they wore Fitbit Flex wristbands to allow for activity monitoring and completed a survey online each night to assess their social experiences. See our infographic for description of social interactions and social comparisons:

What Was It Like to Run This Study?

“Working on this study provided me the opportunity to contribute to the evolution of a study from recruitment to dissemination, as I worked on various pieces as an undergraduate research assistant, research coordinator, and now Ph.D. student. One of the most rewarding aspects was the clinical research experience gained through interacting with participants, discussing their physical activity and setting them up with an activity monitor. This prepared me for my current work in integrated healthcare settings, which includes recruiting participants from a primary care clinic and working with them in our new studies.”

— Kristen Pasko, CHASE Lab Ph.D. student

“We’re really grateful to the women who participated. They were incredibly diligent, which means that we ended up with very little missing data! This is so helpful when it comes time to run statistical tests, and we can be much more confident in our conclusions if we aren’t missing a lot of information.

One of the things we learned through recruitment and data collection is that the college women who participated are getting a good amount of physical activity overall – during the weeks that they were in the study, at least. This is encouraging, though we need to do more to learn about college women who are less active, and how we can help them get more activity. And our findings show that even among college women who get a good bit of activity overall, there is important day-to-day fluctuation in their activity, and their social experiences may help explain why.”

— Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab director

What Did We Find?

Using multilevel modeling techniques, we found that increases in positive interactions per day (above a woman’s typical level of positive interactions) were associated with increases in steps per day. However, increases in negative interactions per day – particularly those with friends – were more strongly and consistently associated with decreases in activity (steps and MVPA). Days with health-based social comparisons, such as perceiving someone else to be healthier than they were, were days with decreases in activity, but only for women with low interest in comparisons – for those with high interest in comparisons, days with health-based comparisons were days in increases in activity. Contrary to previous research among college women with body image concerns, there was no association between appearance-based comparisons and activity.

What Does This Tell Us?

  • Days with negative interactions and health-based comparisons (for some women) are days when college women are at risk of decreasing their activity.
  • These decreases may be due to negative emotions or demotivation for activity prompted by negative social experiences.
  • Days with these experiences are opportunities for intervention, to prevent decreases in activity.

Next Steps

Dr. Arigo presenting our new preliminary findings at SBM 2019

We’re now on our second study designed to learn more about the temporal relations between social experiences and physical activity. To do this, we ask our participants to wear research-grade activity monitors and complete 5 surveys per day for 10 days. In these studies, however, we recruit adult women with elevated risk for cardiovascular disease; our goal is to identify key moments of opportunity for intervention among these women, and to design a smartphone app to deliver this intervention. We presented preliminary findings from data collected at The University of Scranton at this year’s Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM) annual meeting, and we’re now collecting data at Rowan University. An important observation from this preliminary work is that we see some of the same relations between social experiences and physical activity among adult women with cardiovascular risk!

We’re still working to learn more about these relations in college women, and we hope to be able to compare their experiences to those of college men in the near future. Our current work in this area focuses on responses to #fitspiration images on Instagram.

Stay tuned for more on this and our other research!

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