Requiring physical activity classes in college encourages sedentary students to become more active, while elective classes tend to draw those who are already motivated, new research from Oregon State University has found.
“When there is no requirement but the courses are available as electives, the students who take the courses tend to be those who are already active and motivated. Those students already have an affinity toward physical activity and the institution supports it,” Dr. Brad Cardinal says, a kinesiology professor in the Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “That neglects a large group of students who are inactive and unmotivated and who could benefit immensely from such coursework.”
The study’s findings underscore the benefits of required physical activity education as part of the college curriculum, Dr. Cardinal says, a national expert on the benefits of physical activity.
The results were published recently in the Journal of American College Health. The study’s co-author is Dr. MooSong Kim, who worked on the study as a doctoral student at OSU and is now on the faculty at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma.
Past research has shown that physical activity levels tend to decline rapidly as students transition from high school to college and beyond, even though physical activity offers a range of health and other benefits, and habits made or sustained in college tend to follow people into their adult lives.
“Past studies have shown that having a requirement in college is beneficial down the road,” Dr. Cardinal says. “Essentially, those studies – including some of our own at OSU – show that students who aren’t physically active in college tend to remain inactive later in life.”
In a nationwide study published in 2012, Dr. Cardinal and colleagues found that fewer than 40 percent of U.S. colleges and universities require students to complete any physical activity education requirements to earn an undergraduate degree, despite a push by physical education organizations and national health agencies concerned about the health implications of a lack of physical activity.
Dr. Cardinal and Dr. Kim wanted to better understand the impacts of a physical education requirement policy. In their study, they compared exercise motivation, competence and activity levels for students at two universities – one with a physical activity requirement and one without – to see how policies requiring physical activity coursework might affect students’ behavior.