Social identities in physical activity promotion for sedentary women

Pearson, Erin Leigh (2008) Social identities in physical activity promotion for sedentary women. PhD thesis, Victoria University.


The importance of regular and life long physical activity, both from a physical and medical perspective and from a psychological well-being perspective, is well documented. Also well documented is the reduction, below sufficient levels, in physical activity participation, particularly for populations such as young and mid-life adult women. Physical activity promotion is, thus, of great importance in modern society. In this thesis, my primary aim is to develop ways to enhance the adoption and maintenance of physical activity in young and midlife women. To do so, I have utilised the theoretical conceptions from a dominant social cognitive model, the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1985). Subjective norm has not been a strong predictor of intention or behaviour in research on the theory of planned behavior in physical activity contexts (Symons Downs & Hausenblas, 2005), the reasons for which have been the subject of much debate in the literature. To date, there is disagreement about the conceptualization, measurement, and importance of the variable. In this thesis, I examined the potential of the social identity approach as a basis for making subjective norm more meaningful. In this approach, rather than assessing the influence of a random collection of important others as in the original definition (Ajzen, 1985), subjective norm is conceptualised as the perceived pressure from specific reference groups relevant to self, a conceptualization more in keeping with the social identity approach (Terry & Hogg 1996). I expected that the social identity approach to subjective norms would enhance its ability to predict intentions and be the basis of an effective physical activity intervention. Specifically, I expected that physical activity norms, when presented to women from members of a shared social identity would influence both intentions and behaviour. In the first study, I surveyed 214 women between the ages of 25 and 45 to obtain a list of the potential reference groups that would be relevant for young and midlife women. I asked women to list their self-characteristics and then to rate them on Simon’s (1997) social self-categorisation index. I sorted the self-characteristics into types, and listed the frequency and social identity potential for each type. From the most frequently listed self-characteristic types, I found that the personality-based selfcharacteristics, such as strong independent woman, and spiritual caring woman, had more social identity potential, than the role-based self-characteristics, such as wife or professional. I used these personality-based self-characteristics as the basis for my intervention study. In the second study, I conducted a 3-month physical activity study based on the social identity approach to subjective norm. The intervention was for sedentary women (25 to 45 years), who engaged in less than 150 minutes of exercise per week. In two social identity conditions (SI), I conducted a social identity-based subjective norm manipulation. The first SI condition was for women (n = 26) who identified as strong independent women. The second SI condition was for women (n = 17) who identified as spiritual caring women. In these SI conditions, I made salient the relevant identity, and then provided them with video taped normative support for physical activity from similar women (ingroup). In the personal identity (PI) condition (n =21), I asked women to focus on their individuality and provided them with video-taped information about the importance of physical activity presented by health professionals. Women in all conditions completed physical activity questionnaires preintervention, 2-weeks post-intervention, and questionnaires 3-months later to followup. TPB variables were measured as well group norm (re-conceptualised subjective norm). At the 2-week post-test, I found that women from all conditions increased their level of physical activity and there was no difference between the conditions. At the 3- month post-test, however, only the women in the SI conditions maintained their increased level of physical activity. The physical activity levels for women in the PI condition dropped back to pre-intervention levels. These results indicate that subjective norm-based physical activity interventions can be successful in enabling women’s adoption and maintenance of physical activity, more so, than interventions focused on women’s personal identities. Regression analyses in the second study, conducted to examine the TPB provided some support for the social identity-based approach to subjective norm because subjective norm was shown to be a significant predictor of intention for the SI conditions, but not for the PI condition. In the PI condition, only perceived behavioural control predicted intention. These results indicate that norms can be significant predictors of intention, but only in contexts in which women’s social, rather than personal, identities are salient. Contrary to the theory of planned behavior, however, intention did not predict physical activity in either the PI or SI conditions, indicating that action is not influenced by good intentions alone. Before considering the impact of methodological issues on the findings, I investigated the other factors that were operating in the SI conditions, which could explain the increased and maintained physical activity in the absence of an intention-based explanation. This investigation led me to conclude that the social identity approach to subjective norm I used in the SI intervention conditions created the foundation for automatic goal activation based on auto-motive theory (Bargh, 1990), in which the women were able to bypass the more effortful, intentional route in order to execute their physical activity goals. Much future research is, nevertheless, needed to substantiate this conclusion. In the final study, I conducted focus group discussions about the 3-month physical activity study with 38 women from both the PI and SI intervention conditions. The aim of this study was to provide some evidence for the theoretical explanations I made when discussing the lack of an intention – behaviour relationship in my intervention study. I found some evidence that goals were activated automatically in the SI conditions but not the PI condition, and thus, provided some support for automotive theory, but more controlled experimental research is needed to further substantiate the argument. Overall this thesis shows that a physical activity intervention based on the social, rather than personal, level of self is more effective in enhancing both adoption and maintenance of physical activity for young and midlife women. At this social level of self, I found that subjective norm has more of an influence on intention than the personal variables of attitude and perceived behavioural control, but, for young and midlife women, intention is not a strong predictor of behaviour. This means that enhancing the intentions of young and midlife women to exercise may not be enough to influence their exercise behaviour and that other theoretical approaches should be considered. My research shows that an understanding of the social identity approach and auto-motive theory may enable the development of useful strategies to enhance women’s abilities to convert their intentions into action.

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
Subjects Historical > RFCD Classification > 320000 Medical and Health Sciences
Historical > Faculty/School/Research Centre/Department > School of Sport and Exercise Science
Keywords physical fitness for women, exercise for women, health promotion, physical activity, group identity
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