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Understanding physical activity in parents.



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Simpson, Rachel 


Physical activity has many benefits for both physical and mental health. Parents can also experience additional gains, for example an improved ability to cope with the daily challenges of being a parent and closer relationships with children through co-participation. Despite this, review-level evidence has shown that parents are less active than non-parents. The aim of my PhD was to investigate correlates of and experiences of physical activity amongst parents in order to identify groups which are more at risk of insufficient physical activity and ways of increasing physical activity levels amongst parents. My thesis consists of six chapters: an overall introduction, four chapters relating to my projects, and an overall discussion.

Chapter 2 presents a systematic scoping review of research on parental physical activity to identify the breadth and scope of the current quantitative and qualitative evidence available on this topic. I included 214 articles relating to a wide range of relevant quantitative and qualitative studies. However, studies of paternal physical activity and device-assessment were still underrepresented. Most of the research also related to North America, and parents of infants, toddlers, preschoolers or primary school-aged children.

Chapter 3 addresses the underrepresentation of device-assessed parental physical activity in the literature base whilst investigating the association between two factors specific to parents, number and ages of children, and maternal physical activity. These cross-sectional analyses showed that mothers in the Southampton Women’s Survey with multiple children and only children aged <5 years old did less accelerometer-assessed moderate or vigorous physical activity. I concluded that interventions and policies are needed to increase their opportunities for higher intensity physical activity.

Chapter 4 investigates other potential correlates of self-reported and/or device-assessed parental physical activity. To address the underrepresentation of fathers identified in the scoping review, I also examined differences in correlates by parental gender where possible. I showed that one correlate had a negative and 15 a positive association with self-reported parental physical activity, and one had a negative and two a positive association with device-assessed parental physical activity. I concluded that policies and interventions are needed which focus on the incorporation of physical activity as part of daily life, which is also aligned with the ethic of care. There needs to be a focus on family-based promotion and creation of wider built, natural and social environments conducive to physical activity. Parents living with overweight or obesity may be a priority group to target in interventions. Psychosocial factors may play a role in increasing parental physical activity but more research is needed in this area.

Further exploring the findings of Chapter 3, Chapter 5 is a primary qualitative investigation to examine mothers’ and fathers’ experiences of physical activity as their children move from infancy to primary school. I identified five themes, three of which I focussed on as they were most relevant to the research question: “whether and how physical activity changes depends on the domain”, “influence of the child” and “influence of self”.

My PhD highlights the need for more paternal physical activity research and wider use of device-assessment of parental physical activity. In the final chapter, I discuss the use of theoretical frameworks in my thesis and the methodological considerations of my projects. I also present recommendations for policy, public health and future research.





Van Sluijs, Esther
Hesketh, Kathryn


parents, physical activity


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Economic and Social Research Council (2405254)