This study examined PA performed in school and community settings in Mexican-origin adolescents and their relationship to sociodemographic characteristics, including adolescent and parent linguistic acculturation, BMI, and two behaviors believed to be important to PA in Hispanic adolescents, TV viewing and PE participation. In general, boys’ PA was associated with various sociodemographic characteristics and PE participation, whereas girls’ PA was related primarily to PE participation and TV viewing. Our findings highlight similarities and differences in correlates of PA among boys and girls, and point towards potential sources of opportunities as well as disparities for PA behaviors in Mexican-origin youth.
Participants in this study came from households with largely immigrant parents of low education. The prevalence of obesity and extended TV viewing was exceptionally high. Approximately one-third of participants were obese, compared with 22% of Mexican American adolescents nationally.1
Similarly, although Hispanics watch more TV than non-Hispanic whites,19, 24
extended TV viewing (>2 hours/weekday) was more prevalent in our sample (73%) relative to national estimates among Mexican-origin adolescents (38%).24
These findings are disconcerting and warrant further investigation regarding the reasons for such elevated rates of obesity and sedentary behavior in this population.
Participation in daily PE was significantly associated with greater engagement in PA in both boys and girls, including PA and sports outside of school. This finding is notable, particularly given the trend in recent decades of declining enrollment in high school PE programs.43
Although a greater proportion of participants in this study reported attending PE at least one day per week compared to high school students nationally (84% vs. 56%), fewer reported daily participation (25% vs. 33%).20
Findings from this and other studies provide compelling evidence that PE participation is associated with greater engagement in PA in diverse samples of youth.37, 44, 45
PE programs may represent a particularly important source of PA among youth who may not choose, qualify, or be able to afford to play on organized sports teams or be active through other avenues.46
Moreover, as suggested by findings from this study, participation in PE may foster greater involvement in PA outside of school. Participation in PE may lead to enhanced self-efficacy or motivation to be active that translates to greater engagement in overall PA.47, 48
Unfortunately, prior research suggests that students of lower socioeconomic status (SES) are less likely to have PE required in their schools.25
The results here strongly suggest that participation in daily PE may enhance overall PA levels in Mexican-origin adolescents and underscore the potential impact of PE programs on adolescent PA.
Our findings suggest that the educational level of Mexican-American parents, especially mothers, who were the reporting parent in 95% of our sample, may be important to PA performed in a variety of settings, at least among boys. The positive association between parental education and PA in boys but not girls raises interesting questions regarding the mechanisms by which parental education may influence adolescent PA. Although several studies have observed positive relationships between parental education and PA in both genders, few examined this relationship separately by gender or specifically within Hispanic adolescents.37, 49, 50
An important component of SES, parental education may facilitate PA through greater financial resources to participate in sports, purchase equipment, or attend commercial exercise facilities, greater encouragement or transportation to attend activities, improved access to safe neighborhood PA resources, or increased discretionary time.51, 52
Parental education may also reflect attitudes and priorities regarding the importance of PA. Anderson et al.53
observed a positive relationship between parental education and how parents valued PA among boys, but not girls. Hispanic parents in particular exhibited positive attitudes towards vigorous sports for boys but not girls. Further, a longitudinal study of young girls found that parents’ logistic support for PA (e.g. transportation to places to be active) decreased between childhood and adolescence.54
Thus, the positive relationship observed in this study between parental education and PA among boys but not girls may be mediated in part by gender-based parental attitudes towards PA.
Although it has been hypothesized that TV viewing displaces other leisure activities, such as PA, studies among youth have yielded largely null or inconsistent findings.50, 55
In contrast, we observed a significant inverse association between TV viewing and PA participation in Mexican-origin girls across multiple PA categories. This relationship was present among boys for only one outcome, participation in MVPA in community-home settings. These findings suggest that boys may watch large amounts of TV and still be physically active, particularly in school activities. The displacement hypothesis may be more relevant for girls; however, we are unable to infer a causal relationship between TV viewing and reduced PA based on these cross-sectional data. Additional research is needed to elucidate the reasons for a strong association in Mexican-origin girls but not boys, and whether TV viewing is causally associated with reduced PA in girls or whether this relationship is confounded by other factors.
Our results revealed interesting patterns suggesting that the relationship between linguistic acculturation and PA differs by gender, and among boys, varies by parental and youth acculturation. In boys, we observed a significant inverse association between adolescent acculturation and participation in community team sports, whereas parental acculturation was positively associated with MVPA at school. No significant relationships were observed in girls. These findings contribute to a small but growing body of literature focused on understanding how language and acculturation may influence PA in Hispanic youth.23, 27–29, 56, 57
These findings maintain some similarities but are generally inconsistent with the results of previous studies, which may be due in part to the heterogeneity in populations studied, and/or the PA and acculturation measures used. Unger et al.29
found that PA in Hispanic adolescents was inversely associated with orientation to the US, whereas McHale et al.30
observed positive associations between Anglo-oriented cultural practices and time engaged in sports. Studies examining proxy measures (generation status, English use at home) observed positive relationships with PA,27, 28, 56
whereas we did not find parent or adolescent nativity to associate with PA.
The differing relationships between PA participation and parental and youth linguistic acculturation observed in boys may be indicative of different phenomena assessed. Linguistic acculturation in parents may reflect important influences for youth PA relevant to parent communication, financial resources, and access to safe and affordable places to be active, in addition to possible cultural values or attitudes. Because acculturation is closely linked with SES, the limited resources of less acculturated parents may restrict opportunities available to adolescents. Similarly, parents with limited English may be less aware of opportunities for PA at school.
Adolescent linguistic acculturation, in addition to representing language use at home, may also characterize the language used to learn and communicate with friends. The composition of adolescents’ schools and neighborhoods and whether youth feel a sense of belonging may affect their PA participation in these settings. Increased participation in community sports among less acculturated boys in this study may reflect feelings of alienation or exclusion from organized school activities, as has been found previously.58
The lack of an association between adolescent and parent linguistic acculturation and PA in girls is consistent with our finding that behaviors such as TV viewing and PE participation were more important to PA than sociodemographic characteristics, although the reasons for this are unclear. These results differ from those of Springer and colleagues28
who found that PA participation in Hispanic girls was positively associated with English use with parents. Additional research is needed to understand how gender, culture, and socioeconomic factors may interact to influence adolescent PA, recognizing that girls are more likely than boys to have competing responsibilities in the home (e.g. child care, chores) and elevated parent protectiveness regarding safety that may interfere with their PA participation.
In general, our results do not indicate a strong relationship between BMI and overall PA in Mexican-origin adolescents. Obesity was inversely associated with one PA outcome in boys, whereas being overweight, but not obese, was positively associated with girls’ participation in team sports. Previous studies have observed similar findings,59
including greater PA in overweight relative to normal weight Hispanic girls.60
The lack of a consistent relationship may reflect limitations of the self-report PA measures, the importance of energy intake, rather than energy expenditure, to BMI, and the limitations of BMI as a measure of adiposity in adolescents.
This study is among the first to examine PA behaviors and sociodemographic and behavioral correlates of PA in a large, ethnically homogeneous and understudied sample of Mexican-origin adolescents, for whom PA behaviors are poorly understood. This research is further strengthened by the investigation of correlates of PA performed in school and community-home settings, and the examination of the relationships of both parental and adolescent acculturation with adolescent PA. Nonetheless, our analysis has several limitations. First, the measures of PA are based on self-report items adapted from the YRBS, which have been shown to underestimate moderate PA and overestimate vigorous PA relative to objective measures.61
Second, the PA measures specific to school and community settings were adapted for this study and have not been validated, limiting the comparability of our findings to other research. Third, the use of cross-sectional data prohibited inferring causality from the observed relationships. Fourth, because the research setting was limited to the greater Houston metropolitan area, the research findings may not be generalizable to Mexican-origin adolescents in other locations. Fifth, parental measures are based on data from one parent only, 95% of whom were women. Finally, the language-based linear acculturation measures used here were not designed to assess other cultural dimensions (e.g. values, behaviors), and implicitly assume that greater English usage is associated with increased orientation to US society and decreased orientation to Latino culture.
In conclusion, we observed similarities and differences by gender and setting in the correlates of PA among Mexican-origin adolescents that indicate important targets for intervention as well as directions for future research. Participation in daily PE was associated with high levels of PA in all adolescents across settings, underscoring the potential impact of these programs and suggesting increased attention to their availability and quality, particularly for low-income populations. We also found that TV viewing was more strongly related to reduced PA in girls than boys; improved understanding of these relationships will inform interventions to reduce sedentary behaviors and increase PA in Mexican-origin adolescents. Interestingly, our findings suggest that parental education and linguistic acculturation exerted a stronger influence over boys’ participation in school PA than PA performed in the community or at home. These gender-based differences observed between parental characteristics and PA warrant additional investigation regarding the mechanisms through which parental education and acculturation may influence PA in this population. Finally, incorporating attributes of the physical, social, and economic contexts of adolescents’ lives will enhance our understanding of how factors at multiple levels interact and contribute to adolescent PA and provide a strong foundation for effective health promotion in this area.