Research realities: Exercise and self-esteem


Title: Adolescent Physical Activity and Perceived Competence: Does Change in Activity Level Impact Self-perception?
Authors: Cynthia Stein, Laurie Fisher, Catherine Berkey and Graham Colditz
Institutions: Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, US


The physical benefits of exercise are well known, while some studies have found a link between increased physical activity and increased self-esteem. Others have not found this to be the case.

The authors of this study hypothesised that this was because much of the research on self-esteem has used a general measure, rather than breaking down the concept into its different elements. Hence, this study sought to find out whether there were ­specific elements of self-esteem that could be associated with increased exercise.

Much of the research in this area has been undertaken with adults, so this study examined the physical activity levels of 8,670 young people aged 10-18 as part of a three-year project. Participants completed a survey which explored the links between four aspects of what the authors termed “self-perception” and increased exercise.


Increase in physical activity was positively associated with change in what the authors termed “social” and “athletic”, but not “scholastic” or “global” self-perception.

Girls who increased physical activity by at least five hours each week were at least 33% more likely to have more social self-perception, and at least 44% more likely to have greater athletic self-perception. In boys, those who increased activity by at least 10 hours each week were 45% more likely to have more social self-perception.

Young people who decreased their physical activity during the research period were more likely to have decreased self-perception scores. No statistically significant associations between physical activity and either scholastic or global self-perception scores were found in boys or girls. It showed a steady decline in physical activity, starting at age 15 in both boys and girls.

This study shows that terms such as self-concept, self-esteem and self-perception are multi-dimensional. Because of this, studies on self-perception should break down the concept into component parts. In this study, a more accurate account of factors affected by physical activity was obtained. The fact that changes in physical activity levels do not affect all types and measures of self-perception may help explain why an association has not been found in all studies, particularly in those that looked at a single measure of self-perception/self-esteem only.


The authors do not specifically explore what they mean by the terms social, athletic, scholastic and global self-perception so the reader is left to infer this. As the authors themselves note, there are several further limitations to this study.

All participants were children of nurses, so few were from disadvantaged backgrounds. Only 4% of the cohort was from an ethnic minority. The potential for misclassification exists because the data relied on self-reported measures.

The study results are based on a cohort of young people in the US and may not be entirely transferable to a UK population.

Finally, the survey did not distinguish between group and individual exercise, so was unable to ascertain whether one is more beneficial than the other.


This study adds to the growing research base demonstrating the positive mental health benefits of exercise for young people and its role in promoting resilience.

Exercise helps young people to feel good about themselves, although it is not always simple to determine which aspect of self-perception it will improve. Its findings complement those of an earlier comprehensive literature review.

In 2005 Richard Bailey collated evidence on the outcomes of the participation of children and young people in curricular physical education and sport. Bailey’s research review suggests that boys are more likely to be attracted to competitive team games while many girls prefer individual sports such as swimming, athletics and riding.

Given the obvious benefits of sports participation, it is salutary to reflect on the fact that most children are not getting enough exercise.

The Health Survey for England confirms that three out of 10 boys and four out of 10 girls are not meeting the recommended hour a day of physical activity for children. And the government’s chief medical officer reports there to be no evidence of major changes in children’s activity levels in the short term. From a practice perspective, these findings remind us of the importance of promoting sport and exercise, both at a structural level through children’s trusts, for example, and in relation to case work with individual children.

Although the study reported did not examine the links between disadvantaged young people and participation in sport, we know from other studies (for example, Bailey and Gordon-Larsen et al), that some ethnic minority children, those living in poverty and disabled young people are even less likely to take part than more advantaged children.

An overview of children’s physical health by the Dartington Hall Trust suggests that research on children in foster care is yet to comprehensively address their participation in sports, although we do know that overall they have poorer health and engage in more risk-taking behaviour such as alcohol and drug consumption than other young people.

On the participation of disadvantaged young people in general, inequality in local sports and recreational facilities are part of the problem here, as are inadequate transport links, family poverty, lack of acceptance of the value of sport, fear of discrimination, and lack of adult role models.

Research has shown that the recommended levels of activity can be taken in one session or in shorter bouts of activity of 10 minutes or more. Activities include moderate intensity lifestyle activity (brisk walking, cycling and active hobbies), more structured exercise or sport, or a combination of these. Thus today’s public health message is about encouraging a more active style of living, replacing the traditional vigorous and “sporty” message that dominated initiatives in the 1980s and 1990s. Where money is tight, activities such as walking or cycling to school or to the shops could be encouraged.

In UK policy, exercise and sport for children and young people is being given more attention. Policy documents relate participation in physical activity to physical and mental health benefits. Initiatives such as Sport England and activities related to Every Child Matters and Youth Matters place sport and exercise on the agenda. Policy developments in relation to young people and physical exercise are numerous and cut across different government departments.


Targeting: Social workers undertaking direct work with such children or those involved in strategic decisions about local facilities should bear in mind that some groups of children should be targeted, and that they may need more assistance with participating than others. A further argument for targeting is supplied by Mutrie and Parfitt’s research in 1998 for children with learning disabilities or initial low self-esteem the effects of increased physical exercise are particularly strong.

Youth Offending: Social workers in the area of youth offending will be familiar with the notion that sports and other physical activities act as diversions for young people at risk of involvement in crime. Bailey’s review shows that there is at least modest empirical evidence to back up this claim. As such, physical activities should form an important part of any youth offending reduction strategy.

Beneficial Levels: A key practice point is that, given the obvious benefits of physical activity for young people, social workers should know the level of physical activity needed to reap benefits. The government’s chief medical officer recommends that children and young people should achieve at least 60 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a day. At least twice a week this should include activities to improve bone health, muscle strength and flexibility.

Every Child Matters: Emphasis on physical activity for young people is included in the five outcomes of Every Child Matters, particularly enjoying and achieving and making a positive contribution. Briefly summarised, initiatives include funding opportunities to encourage physical activity for disadvantaged young people and keep them meaningfully engaged during holidays and after school, pledges to enhance the number of hours available for sports in school, improved sports facilities for disadvantaged communities, and activities for young people relating to the 2012 London Olympics.

Angie Hart is professor of child, family and community health at the University of Brighton, and academic co-director of its community university partnership programme. She is also a psychotherapeutic counsellor and research practitioner in the local child and adolescent mental health service, and the parent of three children with special needs, adopted from the care system.

Links and resources

● The research on which this article is based was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2007 (Vol 40). Other articles mentioned are Bailey’s “Evaluating the relationship between physical education, sport and social inclusion” in Educational Review (Vol 57) Gordon-Larsen et al, 2002, in Obesity Research (Vol 10) Mutrie and Parfitt’s article in Biddle, Sallis & Cavill (eds) Young and Active? (London, HEA, 1998). See also Department of Health (DH), At Least Five a Week (2004) Evidence on the Impact of Physical Activity and its Relationship to Health, a report from the Chief Medical Officer, DH Physical Activity: An Agenda for Action, National Heart Forum London (1995) DH’s 2003 Health Survey for England 2002, and The Health of Children and Young People, Stationery Office, London.
● The article mentioned by the Dartington Hall Trust
The London Olympics website explains what they are doing to inspire young people to take part in sports.
● The vision and practice of the Department of Education and Skills can be followed on the Every Child Matters and Youth Matters websites 
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport also has interlinking initiatives and at  
Cycling initiatives


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