Perceptions and barriers to physical activity during the transition to university.
Abstract: The purpose of this study was to build a comprehensive picture of how physical activity relates to the transitional experiences during students' first year at university. To help inform the development of future intervention efforts, the current study conducted 8 focus groups (N = 45) to gain a better understanding of students' perceptions of physical activity, and to identify the salient barriers they encounter during their transition into university. Findings indicate that students recognized the benefits of physical activity, but were ambivalent about taking steps to be more active; however, did appear receptive towards the prospect of an intervention.
Subject: Universities and colleges
Physical fitness
Authors: Kwan, Matthew Y.W.
Faulkner, Guy E.J.
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: American Journal of Health Studies Publisher: American Journal of Health Studies Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 American Journal of Health Studies ISSN: 1090-0500
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 26 Source Issue: 2
Product: Product Code: 8220000 Colleges & Universities NAICS Code: 61131 Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools SIC Code: 8221 Colleges and universities
Accession Number: 308742263
Full Text: Declining engagement in physical activity (PA) is a critical public health issue. Based on population-attributable risk estimates, approximately 20% of premature mortality could have been prevented through regular engagement in PA (Katzmarzyk, Glenhill, & Shephard, 2000). Recently, a number of studies have identified the transition from high school into college or university being associated with significant declines in students' leisure-time PA (Bray, 2007; Bray & Born, 2004; Kwan, Bray, & Martin Ginis, 2009). There is growing recognition that university and college students are an important target population for health promotion efforts, and that the collegiate setting is a critical setting for the delivery of health and PA promotion (Gilson et al., 2009). Situated within institutions conducive to establishing community norms and policies, there are unique opportunities for students to be educated intellectually, experientially, and systematically to help shape healthy habits (Sparling, 2003). Campus officials, health services, and administrators all occupy a unique, yet significant role in facilitating healthy lifestyles for students. Given some promising evidence suggesting that PA behaviors can be modified through intervention (Bray, Beauchamp, Latimer, Hoar, Shields, & Bruner, 2008), the transition into post-secondary school represents an important period for which to engage with and intervene on.


Recently, studies have begun to uncover some of the population-specific determinants of PA among the cohort of young adults transitioning into university. Overall, evidence suggests that students are entering university with positive attitudes towards PA, strong perceptions of behavioral control, and intends to be regularly active (Kwan et al., 2009). Unfortunately, the majority of students do not follow-through with these earlier intentions, and in fact, become less active (Kwan et al., 2009). This discrepancy between students' intentions and behaviors may be because students are entering university overly confident in their ability to cope with PA barriers. The transition out of high school represents a stressful time, involving numerous aspects of change (Gall, Evan & Bellerose, 2000; Lafreniere Ledgerwood, & Docherty, 1997). Given that this is considered the first major transition that an individual faces (Brooks & Dubois, 1995), students may perceive themselves having full control of their behaviors when they first enter university, but that these perceptions of control could change as they start to encounter some unanticipated difficulties. In fact, barriers are a consistent predictor of PA (Sallis & Owen, 1999), and appear to have important implications for students transitioning into university. Overall, students encounter more barriers during their first year at university compared to their final year at high school (Gyurcsik et al., 2006); but it may be the confidence in one's ability to overcome common barriers, or coping self-efficacy that is key. Overall, coping self-efficacy appears to be a robust predictor of PA during students' first-year at university, with higher coping self-efficacy being positively associated with greater PA engagement (Bray, 2007; Gyurcsik et al., 2004).

Existing research addressing PA declines within this population has been exclusively quantitative in nature. Little work has been done to understand the context of PA during the transition into university; and therefore, limited conclusions can be drawn regarding first-year students' perceptions of PA, and even the barriers they encounter. For example, while research suggests that students have positive attitudes towards PA (Kwan et al., 2009), it is unclear how these attitudes change over the course of their first year at university, and whether the declines in PA are even a concern. In terms of PA barriers, Gyurcsik and colleagues (2006) investigated barriers among first-year university students using open-ended semi structured questions. However, this study required participants to list their barriers (nested within a longer questionnaire), so participant burden could be a limiting factor in its comprehensiveness. Given the relationship between PA-related barriers (including students' ability to cope with these barriers) and PA behaviors, there is a clear need for a greater contextual understanding of the transitional experiences of students as they first enter university.

The overall purpose of this study was to utilize a qualitative methodology to build a comprehensive picture of how PA relates to the transitional experiences during students' first year at university. More specifically, in an effort to help inform the development of future intervention efforts, the current study sought to gain a better understanding of students' perceptions of PA, its role during students' first year at university, as well as the salient barriers that first-year students encountered during their transition into university.



Focus groups are a helpful stimulus for informing intervention development (Creswell, Hanson, Clark & Morales, 2007), capturing rich and in-depth insights toward the way people perceive, create and interpret their surroundings (Kreuger & Casey, 2000). Guided by a moderator, focus groups enable a researcher to enter into another person's perspective, while also gathering information through social interactions. The dynamics of the group setting not only helps facilitate each individual to share personal ideas and experiences, but also allows other members of the group to build on them.


A total of 8 focus group interviews were conducted with 45 first-year university students ([N.sub.Females] = 26). Eligible participants had to satisfy two criterions: (1) a first-year university student directly entering university from high school; and (2) declined in their PA at university. With the exception of one group (3 participants), focus groups consisted of 5 to 8 participants, each approximately 70 to 80 minutes in duration. This size provided a balance between participants' ability to share personal insight, while interacting, discussing, and challenging emergent group ideas.

Four of the focus groups were conducted with students living on-campus (residence), while the remaining 4 were conducted with students living off-campus (commuters). This stratification was made for two reasons. The first reason was to increase group homogeneity, fostering greater comfort levels among participants; and secondly, because students living on-campus and those living off-campus may be encountering different transitional experiences. Data saturation was reached prior to the final focus groups being conducted; however, 8 focus groups were organized, and the latter groups were used to confirm that data saturation was obtained.


Given that the focus groups were designed to be exploratory in nature, a semi-structured interview schedule was developed. A pilot focus group was conducted to determine whether any modifications in the focus group schedule were necessary. A qualitative expert was elicited to act as a note-taker, providing objective and impartial feedback. Following the pilot focus group, the moderator, expert, and participants all agreed that the focus group schedule was appropriate, and no major changes were required.

The first part of the interview schedule explored perceptions of PA during their first year at university. This section asked students to provide their general thoughts and perceptions of PA. For example, questions included "how did PA fit into your first-year university experience?" and "was the decline in PA behaviors a concern to you?" Overall, the aim was to solicit the general interest level students have regarding PA, and assistance in being physically active. The second part focused on the salient barriers students encountered during their first year at university. Students were asked general questions about why they had been more active in high school compared to university, and asked students to identify specific barriers that hindered their ability to engage in more activity. Specifically, students were prompted to consider barriers on the basis of an ecological framework (Sallis & Owen, 1999), identifying the intrapersonal, interpersonal, community/environmental, and societal barriers.


Participants were primarily recruited through flyers and advertisements. Respondents were first screened to ensure that they met the study's selection criteria, and subsequently assigned to a focus group. Each focus group began with a briefing session, outlining the study purposes, as well as the ethics/confidentiality protocol. Participants were then asked to provide consent to participate in the study, and to complete a brief demographic questionnaire. This questionnaire included items of age, sex, place of residence, and self-report physical activity (see Table 1). The PA measure doubled as a manipulation check, ensuring that participants had indeed declined in their PA during the transition to university. Following the focus group interview, participants were de-briefed and received $10 compensation. This study received ethical approval by the university research ethics board.


A thematic analysis was carried out in which the data were analyzed deductively, using a constant comparison approach (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Audio-recordings were first transcribed verbatim, where pseudonyms were assigned to each participant to ensure confidentiality. Following transcription, the focus group data was read and re-read by the lead author (MK) to become familiar with the data. Codes were then developed in order to denote important units of meaning. These "meaning units" consisted of words and phrases that reflected and were indicative of student's interests in PA and perceived barriers to participation. For example, as participants repeated them throughout the study, words that reflected barriers such as "not enough time" "other interests" and "feeling intimidated", were coded throughout the transcript. After each individual transcript had been repeatedly read and coded, in the second level of analysis, all of the participants' transcripts were read and coded again; common meaning units were grouped together in order to form provisional themes. For example, words such as "time," "work," "academics," were all coded into a broader theme which encapsulated the essence of these meaning units: shifting priorities. Emergent categories and themes were continually being challenged, by asking whether the data was central to one of the research questions. This process remained flexible, meaning that themes could be modified and refined until the most reasonable reconstruction of the data was completed.


Being mindful of issues that make their findings legitimate and replicable, qualitative work must produce research that is 'trustworthy'. In other words, the research process must be verifiable; and without trustworthiness, the research becomes worthless and something fictional (Morse, Marrett, Mayan, Olson, & Spiers, 2002). The purpose of the current investigation was to obtain data reflective of the natural occurrences within the context of a first-year university student; therefore, several methodological strategies for demonstrating the study's trustworthiness were used to ensure that this research was reflective of students' actual experiences. One strategy used to increase trustworthiness was member checking. Throughout each focus group, as key ideas were identified, the moderator would summarize the idea and reframe it as a question. Subsequently, participants either confirmed or were asked to clarify the interpretation. Secondly, the first author also sought the consultation of an experienced qualitative researcher (GF). An initial meeting prior to the start of the focus group was conducted to discuss the scope of the study and review the interview guide. Following the completion of the focus group interviews, half of the focus group transcripts were given to GF for review. Another meeting was conducted after GF had the opportunity to review the transcripts, to discuss issues around the coherence of data collected, and themes and patterns that subsequently emerged.


The current study had two overarching focuses. The first purpose of the study was to explore first-year students' perceptions of PA, and the second purpose was to identify the salient barriers that first-year students encounter during their transition into university. Both will be addressed in sequence, with quotations inserted to emphasize and illustrate ideas and relationships.


Students acknowledged that there were many changes associated with the transition into university, and that they noticed a shift in priority towards academics. Despite acknowledging decreases in PA, however, it was still regarded as an important behavior --many expressing regret that they were unable to maintain PA levels during their first year at university. A number of students made similar remarks to Karen when she said: "it makes you feel bad [being less active] because you know it's good for you. It keeps you healthy and everything, so you know you should be doing it (Karen)." Others recalled entering university with the intentions to participate in a variety of activities:

Well, I came in here thinking I would swim everyday or something, cause they have a number of swimming pools you know. But that just didn't happen (Hope).

I [got to university] and like Yes! This is going to be my best 4years of my life. I'm going to work out everyday and like get smart and go to school, it's going to be great (Joe).

The problem was that students' positive intentions became mitigated when the realities of academia became apparent. Given the greater demand and increased workload at university, academic-related activities appeared to be students' top priority. What began with students being excited about university, in anticipation of greater independence and increased autonomy (i.e., perceived opportunities of trying out new sports or activities), discussions began to center around studying. It became clear that students became increasingly ambivalent towards PA. Julia, who was among the many participants who had entered university with strong intentions to be active, summed it up accurately when she stated: "as the semester went on, physical activity just gets neglected (Julia)." Despite identifying some of the short and long term benefits associated with PA, when it came down to a decision to engage in PA, students gave it lower priority:

It's like I realized I'm in university now, it's even more like I have to try harder in school, so when you start to bring up exercising in the equation, it's like shouldn't you be devoting this time to your studies instead? (Joanne).

I guess for academics in university... being athletic weighs against how you are doing in school, so it's like a trade off. So if you do more sports and exercise, and then that time can be used towards studying, so which one do I care about more? Like I want my diploma, but where is my exercise going to get me? I'm not going to be an athlete... so I'll be like I should focus and spend more time investing more time to studying. (Diana).

Given that there were both positive and negative feelings towards time being spent on PA, a key question became whether or not students had any interest in a PA program [intervention] to help them be more active during their transition into university. The ambivalence that students exhibited may have broader implications for future intervention efforts. If students are not accepting of the PA intervention concept, its chance for success would be minimal. However, the results were positive, and students were overwhelmingly in favor of the idea. Generally, students thought that a potential program would be beneficial, and was something they wished were available during their transition. For example, Deb stated: "I think a lot of first year students would be open to that, open to a lot of new things. Like giving the information about the hours and place... that just helps... (Deb)." The caveat, however, was while students were in favour of the intervention concept, there was also a varying degree of skepticism towards its potential effectiveness, including many students making similar remarks to Jake when he stated: "[the intervention] probably won't have super huge effects on the numbers, but will it help? Definitely! (Jake)"


Guided by Sallis and colleagues (1999) social ecological model, emergent barriers were categorized as intrapersonal, interpersonal, environmental/community, or societal. Salient barriers are highlighted within each of their respective categories.


Intrapersonal barriers reflect the factors internal to the individual that prevents or hinders their ability to participate in PA. As previously mentioned, students were eagerly anticipating greater independence, freedom, and autonomy associated with being at university. However, this newfound independence left many students feeling lost, especially regarding the concept of time. This perhaps relates to the notion of a shift to prioritizing academics, thus students consistently identified a lack of time as one barrier:

I feel like I'm on a tight time budget. I'd come homefrom class and like I'll have time to do homework and I'll sleep for a bit and like have time for dinner... Then it's like 8:00pm, [you drag your feet], and then it's like 10:00pm and you're like I cant go to the gym now (Ken).

Thinking that you had control of everything that you eat and [physical activity], but then it's like when you get here [at university], you're even worried about grabbing something fast to eat and stuff, you just don't have much time (Frank).

While the lack of hours per day was clearly evident, the results also found many students lacking the confidence in time management. Some students felt it easy to procrastinate, while others perceived that they lacked control over time:

I find myself with a lot less time than I did before, and I'm not completely sure why... I actually thought about this lately because high school takes like a chunk of time, like 7 hours out of your day, and like university classes, in a day like I would have 4 hours of classes or something on average. yeah, I cant figure it out, it really kills me that I think I have less time (Joanne).

Well, I tend to leave things till the night before, and I get so angry with myself, like why do I do that to myself? Like I mean my life would be so much easier if I was able to manage my time, my whole life (Alicia).

In high school, they manage your time for you pretty much... and now in university it's like here's what you need to do, go do it... it's a learning experience (Harrison).

Harrison's point was consistent with others who felt that learning to deal with the rigors at university was a constant learning experience. Prioritizing academics meant that much of students' time and energy had to be dedicated to school leaving them with less time and motivation for other things.

Another salient barrier related to perceptions of intimidation. Generally, many students lacked the desire to participate in campus-based PA because they were intimidated. For example, students felt that the programs being offered were targeting the already physically fit. This resulted in students like Mike being reluctant to join because of the perceived pressures to perform: "I've seen like the posters up, like with saying join intramurals or whatever, but to me, it's kind of intimidating. Because thinking, I'd just show up, I'm not very good, and I don't know them (Mike)." Similarly, many described such programs as being too competitive. Given the dramatic increase of the student population at university, students felt that there was a larger pool of athletic talent; therefore, they perceived that their own athletic abilities were inferior, making it difficult to participate:

Like you said about sports not being as much fun anymore, I mean like I was never really competitive at sports, and now [at university]you have all these elite people involved. It's like another world, so if you want to be involved, I don't want to have to be like go try out [for intramural sports] or anything like that (Sophie).

Not only that but you are going to find a lot of people definitely better than you, like in everything. I mean in high school, let's say you are the best at one sport and everybody would think you are the best athlete. But here you come, you're nowhere near any of these people, and other students are much better than you, so you think there's just no point. (Jay).


Interpersonal barriers are external factors that emphasize both formal and informal social networks and social supports systems. Results of this study found changes in social groups being a significant barrier for the vast majority of students. Many encountered a similar experience to Rob, who stated: "all my friends went separate ways after high school... some went off to other universities, so it was [kind of] like starting over again (Rob)." Due to the changes in social groups, many reported it difficult to form social relationships for the purposes of being physically active. Katherine states, "back in high school, I would enjoy [physical activities] more with my friends and stuff, but now it's different, you know, sometimes we would go as a group of friends to drop in, and that would be fun, but going on your own, or trying to get on a team, it's not as fun. It's too hard (Katherine)." Instead, students formed new relationships based on scholarly commonalities, and now displaced by other sedentary behaviors:

You know, we used to go out after school to do stuff [sport activities] ... It's just easier to go out to eat now. After classes and all that, you just want go chill and eat, there are so many good places close by (Tom).

It's different ... You meet people in your class and they have [similar academic] interests ... it's more like making new friends, people you can study with (Sarah).

Besides peer influences, results also found parents being considered to be a potential barrier. As much independence as some students feel they had entering university, a lot of students shared similar sentiments to Sophie who felt external pressure from her parents to solely focus on academic-related activities --particularly if the parents perceived little value in PA: "I think that parents have strong influences ... and they really only see you need money for a calculator or a pen, not so much for physical activity ... They tell me to do homework, they don't tell me to go out and play sports ... they only see the negative impacts of the activity [risk of injury] and never really see the wholesome or health that comes from [activity] (Sophie)." Conversely, however, a number of participants indicated that their parents were strong advocates of PA: Ashley describes: "well, my dad is pretty pro-working out and staying fit. I think he started a few years ago, and noticed the benefits. So he wants me to do some bodybuilding and stuff ... he is like anything you want to take, just take it and I'll go pay for it (Ashley)." Given these conflicting accounts, the findings suggest that parental influence is still salient as students enter university, which could either be a barrier and facilitator to PA.


Environmental and community barriers are relationships among organizations, institutions, and informal networks which hinder an individuals' ability participate in PA. Two of these environmental/community barriers were identified, specifically pertaining to the institutional environment and distance for students living off campus. Many students perceived the university campus as a place not conducive for being active. This was not an issue geographically, rather students recalled the difficulties adjusting to the mentality of a new and much larger educational institution. Overall, academic programs and requirements negatively affected PA participation:

It's so hard to stay on top of things. Even if you finish all your mid-terms, there are the papers and assignment, and before you know it, it's already finals... [university] was definitely more [difficult] than I was expecting (Bree).

I think it's [physical activity decline] a huge accumulation of the workload. Because the atmosphere is like you got to get this done by this day, so everybody is trying to get it all done, I think people just don't worry about what's going on on the outside... we're all just like zombies (Brad).

While it was agreed that workload was much heavier at university, the most compelling finding was that students perceived receiving little support from the university in facilitating PA participation. This was in contrast to high school where students recalled receiving constant information about activities being offered on-campus. Overall, students perceived that the university did a poor job of marketing on-campus activities, and that the information provided was neither easy to obtain nor convenient to access. Results suggest that the perceived lack of awareness and the absence of information was a salient barrier for many students entering this novel environment.

I probably would have gone to [do more activities] had I gotten more information about it. I mean I signed up at the beginning of the year to an e-mail list but I didn't get any of the information (Kit).

I hate the fact that you have all these intramural things that are the only things that get a lot of attention... There is just not a lot of information. They don't tell you much other than those try-outs. Even frosh week, the tour is like...the gym is there, and you can do that there', but you don't even to actually see it. (Joe).

It's not like we get a lot of information about sports teams and stuff... the [athletic centre] website is so stupid! Even when you try and find out the information, you get sent to this link and that, you get a schedule... it's like why am I wasting my time? Had I had more info, I would have been more motivated (Josh).

The second environmental/community barrier that emerged from the focus group related to those students living off-campus. While few differences emerged between students living on and off campus, the distance in which commuting students was an additional barrier that only commuting students had to contend with. The distance itself had a negative impact on students' PA in several ways, including feeling fatigued following their daily commute to school and back:

Commuting tires you out a lot. Even sitting on the train and the bus, I find it really draining, and it takes away from a lot of my energy... I mean when you are crushed like sardine during rush hour and stuff, and having to hurry to catch the next train or bus, it just all adds up (Ed).

I just want to go home. Like it takes an hour and a half to go home anyway, so I don't want to have to go work-out (Sarah).

In addition to time and energy associated with the commute, another interesting finding was that commuter students felt detached from student life, and perceived to have fewer opportunities to be active around campus. As Richard explains, "I would say I feel being a commuter, I feel a little more detached. I mean, I have to go all the way from home, taking like at least a half-hour to hour to get to places and stuff. I mean it's not that much, but like you [kind of] want to get home after classes, and you don't want to have to look for a place to chill or whatever, just so I can play a game of basketball. So there's less of a motivation to get yourself involved (Richard)." Other off-campus students also found it less convenient to engage in PA on campus because the difficulties associated with bringing the necessary clothing and equipment to the university campus: "for a lot of the sports you actually have to carry around the racquets, the gym clothes, the gym bag. you already have textbooks, notebooks, pencil case, laptops in your bags, on top of that you have carry all of these? No ... (Ashley)." Collectively, it appears that the physical distance was a significant difference between students living on and off campus, adding a complexity that only commuting students are forced to deal with.


Societal barriers represent public policy and laws, governed at the local, provincial, or national levels. Overall, there were very few societal barriers that students felt hindered their PA participation. While a few of the participants indicated that it was somewhat daunting for them to be moving into a large metropolitan centre, it was not a salient theme among the focus groups.


The transition into university is an obvious life-changing experience. Sudden increases in autonomy and independence were clearly associated with declines in PA. Lacking the support and structures in place at high school, these students did not seek out information or opportunities to be physically active on a regular basis despite being appreciative of the benefits of PA. Students also reported devoting more time, focus and energies towards academic-related activities. Whether the impetus to focus their efforts on academics was internal (from themselves) or external (parental influence), academics was the students' primary focus and alternative activities became secondary. Overall, it became evident that students became ambivalent towards PA as they began to embark on their university careers.

The ambivalence students exhibited reflects negative changes to PA motivation. Shifts in motivation have been found in other research, suggesting that PA motivation is dynamic during the transition out of high school. In a recent study, Martin and colleagues (2008) found young adults decreasing in their adaptive PA cognitions (reflected by individuals' positive attitudes and orientations addressing confidence and valuing of PA), adaptive PA behaviors (positive behaviors associated with PA such as planning, management, and persistence) and increasing in maladaptive PA behaviors (reflected by reduced PA motivation and comprising of concepts such as avoidance and disengagement) in the year following high school graduation. These reflect ones ability to convert positive intentions into actual behaviors, which is critical for PA maintenance (Martin, 2010; Martin et al., 2006). Therefore, PA motivation appears to be an important target for interventions. In an effort to lesson the ambivalence students have towards PA, interventions need to address declines in adaptive cognitions, facilitating greater self-efficacy, and valuing of PA. Perhaps intervention efforts could promote the proximal benefits of PA in terms of assisting academic performance (e.g., improved sleep; stress management) rather than distal health benefits.

Given students' positive response towards a prospective PA intervention, a greater understanding of the salient barriers will aid in developing strategies for addressing the declines in PA among individuals' transitioning into university. Overall, a large proportion of the focus group discussions revolved around students' academic commitments. Related to these commitments, time was one salient barrier identified. In reflecting on the academics requirements, students identified issues associated with time constraints and time management. Interestingly, while lack of time was often brought up, students conceded that they may have had more time than initially thought, which was not managed well. Recently, research has found links between time management and self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability for a person to control one's own behavior without external control or monitoring (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994), and self-regulatory strength is considered a finite resource that can become depleted when used to control thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000; Rovniak, Anderson, Winett, & Stephens, 2008). Obviously academic demand continues to draw self-regulatory resources, and students will draw on these demands throughout their average day. Subsequently, as self-regulatory strength depletes, students end up lacking the motivation to exert further energy. However, there are self-regulatory strategies that can help students cope with the demands of school, and reduce stress and onset fatigue, (Ax, Gregg, & Jones, 2001; Degotardi, Klass, Rosenberg, Fox, Gallelli, & Gottlieb, 2006), which may in turn keep students motivated to follow-through with their earlier PA plans. Learning strategies such as implementation intentions and goal setting are two specific examples that can help students regulate themselves better (Ajzen, 2006; Gollwitzer, 1999; Smith, Hauenstein & Buchanan, 1996), and should be considered in development of intervention efforts.

Another salient barrier that emerged related to intimidation. Many students expressed concerns regarding self-presentation or with the competitive of nature activities being offered. Students being intimidated may have important implications, given a recent study showing barriers relating to self-presentation and affect being the most robust predictors of students' self-efficacy to cope with barriers (Kwan & Bray, 2009). Considering that students' coping self-efficacy are largely dependent on barriers such as intimidation, and that coping self-efficacy is an important predictor of PA (e.g., Bray, 2007; Gyurscik et al., 2004), issues around intimidation need to be explicitly addressed. It appears that many of these concerns stem from institutional programming (e.g., not provided with information; activity being catered to the advanced); therefore, the findings suggest that institutions, at the policy-level, must do a better job marketing PA opportunities to their students, providing them with a range of options that could reduce these fears or concerns.

Finally, change in social groups was identified as another factor hindering students' engagement in PA. Transition into university often meant that students entered university with less familiarity with others; and as a result, no longer had friends who shared common sport/activity interests. Instead, student found themselves meeting people with academic commonality, and social activities shifted from PA to more sedentary activities such as studying or going out to socialize. Group norms, peer influence and social support are all important factors that influence PA behaviors (Rivis & Sheeran, 2003); therefore, fostering an environment that creates and facilitates opportunities for new students to meet and find others with similar PA interests may be necessary. Utilizing social networking services (e.g., Twitter; Facebook) may be critical to this process.


Focus groups were stratified to reflect first-year students living on and off campus. The results of these comparisons suggest that the first-year student population is a fairly homogenous group. However, the commute itself emerged as an important barrier for students living off-campus. The commute resulted in students having less discretionary time and less motivation for PA. While some research has found little differences between PA behaviors between university students living on-campus and off-campus (Brevard & Ricketts, 1996), there has been other research that has found advantages for off-campus students living at home in terms of PA maintenance (Bray, Millen, & Kwan, 2004). The caveat, however, is that Bray and colleagues' study was conducted at a small university situated in a smaller urban center. The current study was located in a larger urban center, where commuting times could be quite substantial. For instance, setting aside an extra 30 to 90 minutes for PA may prove to be even more difficult when students have to travel an additional 1 to 3 hours everyday. Overall, students living away from campus were forced to deal with another level of complexity in addition to the other salient PA barriers identified earlier. Implications of this finding suggest that intervention efforts may need to be tailored differently to students who live on-campus and students living off-campus. For example, interventions aimed at commuting students may want to incorporate greater emphasis on community-based facilities, and include non-leisure time physical activities such as active transportation.


Despite the important contributions of this study, there are several limitations worth highlighting. First, there may have been issues of social desirability. Recruitment of participants was made primarily via posters and advertisements; therefore, the study may have recruited students with a pre-existing interest in PA to begin with. Second, sampling selection was based on students who declined in their PA behaviors. It may have been informative to interview students who had maintained or increased their PA participation during this transition. Exploring similarities and differences in experiences might shed light on how best to intervene and this could be the focus of future research.


Overall, to our knowledge this is the first qualitative study to adopt a qualitative methodology to better understand the decline in PA participation among students transitioning from high school to university. This insight is essential for the development of population-specific interventions targeting this group. Given the complexities associated with PA behavior during the best (i.e., the most stable) of times, an in depth examination of the transitional experiences of a first-year student was necessary. Overall, the results of the current study further reinforced some findings of previous research, while providing a richer breadth of understanding around students' PA cognitions and PA behaviors. Implications from these findings suggest that future interventions need to target students' adaptive behaviors and self-regulatory skills, in an effort to help facilitate greater PA motivation and PA behavior. While students should not be discouraged to prioritize academics, the dissemination of information regarding the benefits of PA should be tailored to emphasize the short-term, academic-related benefits of PA. This may help reduce the ambivalence seen regarding PA. Providing students with the self-regulatory tools to adapt behaviors in the context of competing time demands will also be necessary. Given the interest in receiving support to be more physically active, PA interventions should be developed to help attenuate the declines in PA for students transitioning into university. Once developed, future research will need to examine the acceptability and feasibility of such intervention programs before the implementation of large-scale institutional initiatives.


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Matthew Y.W. Kwan, PhD Guy E.J. Faulkner PhD

Matthew Y.W. Kwan, PhD, is affiliated with the McMaster University (the research was conducted at the University of Toronto), Guy E.J. Faulkner PhD, is affiliated with the University of Toronto. Corresponding Author: Matthew Kwan, PhD, 175 Longwood Road South, 201A, Hamilton, Ontario, L8P 0A1. Email:
Table 1. Overall demographic characteristics of focus group
participants (N = 45).

                                        Sample Total
                                          (N = 45)

Characteristics              Residence              Off-Campus
                              (n = 23)               (n = 21)
                                 n                      n

Mean Age                18.64 ([+ or -] .98)   18.73 ([+ or -].89)
Males                            8                      15
Females                          11                     9
Physical Activity
(times per week)
High School             6.42 ([+ or -] 4.61)   5.64 ([+ or -] 4.01)
First-year University   3.11 ([+ or -] 2.50)   2.97 ([+ or -] 2.64)
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