Unspoken Playground Rules Discourage Adolescent Physical Activity in School: A Focus Group Study of Constructs in the Prototype Willingness Model

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The health benefits of exercise in school are recognized, yet physical activity continues to decline during early adolescence despite numerous interventions. In this study, we investigated whether the prototype willingness model, an account of adolescent decision making that includes both reasoned behavioral choices and unplanned responses to social environments, might improve understanding of physical activity in school. We conducted focus groups with British pupils aged 12 to 13 years and used deductive thematic analysis to search for themes relating to the model. Participants described reasoned decisions about physical activity outside school and unplanned choices to be inactive during break, in response to social contexts described as more “judgmental” than in primary school. Social contexts appeared characterized by anxiety about competence, negative peer evaluation, and inactive playground norms. The prototype willingness model might more fully explain physical activity in school than reasoned behavioral models alone, indicating potential for interventions targeting anxieties about playground social environments.

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