Determinants of Physical Activity in Adolescents and Young Adults: The Basis for High School and College Physical Education to Promote Active Lifestyles

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2003


The objective of this paper is to provide an overview of factors that influence physical activity adoption and/or maintenance for high school and college students (ages 15-24) based upon the recent behavioral research literature. Regardless of one's age, adoption and maintenance of physical activity is a complex process, reflective of multiple personal, interpersonal, and environmental variables. A more complete understanding of this topic requires familiarity with behavioral change theory. As a backdrop to the behavioral research concerning physical activity, a variety of behavioral change theories are discussed including classic Learning Theories, the Health Belief Model, Social-Cognitive Theory, the Transtheoretical Model (also referred to as the Stages of Change Model), and a variety of Ecological Models. Regarding the adoption and maintenance of physical activity by high school students, the Youth Physical Activity Model proposed by Welk (1999) provides a clear framework for understanding this behavior and for guiding interventions. In addition to the theoretical underpinnings of physical activity behavior, various determinants of activity are discussed, including demographic and biological factors; psychological, cognitive, and emotional factors; behavioral attributes and skills; social and cultural factors; physical environment factors; and physical activity characteristics. Furthermore, the determinants that promote physical activity (facilitators) and the factors that are perceived as discouraging physical activity (barriers) are explored. A summary of some of the research findings regarding physical activity behavior promotion in school settings through physical education programs is presented. Additionally, strategies for behavior modification aimed at increasing physical activity are delineated.