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Logo of bmcphBioMed Centralsearchsubmit a manuscriptregisterthis articleBMC Public Health
BMC Public Health. 2012; 12: 640.
Published online 2012 August 10. doi:  10.1186/1471-2458-12-640
PMCID: PMC3490897

Physical activity attitudes, intentions and behaviour among 18–25 year olds: A mixed method study



Young people (18–25 years) during the adolescence/adulthood transition are vulnerable to weight gain and notoriously hard to reach. Despite increased levels of overweight/obesity in this age group, physical activity behaviour, a major contributor to obesity, is poorly understood. The purpose of this study was to explore physical activity (PA) behaviour among 18–25 year olds with influential factors including attitudes, motivators and barriers.


An explanatory mixed method study design, based on health Behaviour Change Theories was used. Those at university/college and in the community, including those Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) were included. An initial self reported quantitative questionnaire survey underpinned by the Theory of Planned Behaviour and Social Cognitive Theory was conducted. 1313 questionnaires were analysed. Results from this were incorporated into a qualitative phase also grounded in these theories. Seven focus groups were conducted among similar young people, varying in education and socioeconomic status. Exploratory univariate analysis was followed by multi staged modelling to analyse the quantitative data. ‘Framework Analysis’ was used to analyse the focus groups.


Only 28% of 18–25 year olds achieved recommended levels of PA which decreased with age. Self-reported overweight/obesity prevalence was 22%, increasing with age, particularly in males. Based on the statistical modelling, positive attitudes toward PA were strong predictors of physical activity associated with being physically active and less sedentary. However, strong intentions to do exercise, was not associated with actual behaviour. Interactive discussions through focus groups unravelled attitudes and barriers influencing PA behaviour. Doing PA to feel good and to enjoy themselves was more important for young people than the common assumptions of ‘winning’ and ‘pleasing others’. Further this age group saw traditional health promotion messages as ‘empty’ and ‘fear of their future health’ was not a motivating factor to change current behaviour.


1825 year olds are a difficult group to reach and have low levels of PA. Factors such as, ‘enjoyment’, ‘appearance ‘and ‘feeling good’ were deemed important by this specific age group. A targeted intervention incorporating these crucial elements should be developed to improve and sustain PA levels.

Keywords: Physical activity, Young people, 18–25 year olds, Mixed methods, Obesity, Transition

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