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Getting in the habit of exercising

Media release

New research by Curtin University has examined the role intention and habit play in getting first-generation university students to participate in physical activity, a group whose exercise routines can be significantly disrupted in their transition to university life.

Paper co-author, Associate Professor Barbara Mullan, from Curtin’s School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, said little was known about first-generation university students engaging in exercise when compared to other students, and no research had yet examined the physical activity implications of this transition.

“Any time our lives change, our routine gets disrupted so for anyone going to university for the first time, this affect may be more pronounced,” Associate Professor Mullan said.

“Students experience amplified challenges such as increased workload and self-consciousness that can impact their engagement in physical activity, so if they had been exercising habitually, going to university generally changes that.

“The aim of our research was to determine the efficacy of the theory of planned behaviour within this population and to determine whether habit could help to predict physical activity but the research is relevant for any period of transition.”

The study group comprised 188 first-generation students from a Queensland university, ranging in age from 17 to 54 years. The majority were female and more than 80 per cent had completed high school within three years of starting university.

Associate Professor Mullan said habit was something people performed without too much thinking, intention was conscious behaviour but not necessarily outcome, and planned behaviour involved action.

“Engaging in regular physical activity results in numerous psychological and physical benefits, including psychological wellbeing, improved cognitive function, prevention of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure, and reduced risk of diabetes and some forms of cancer,” Associate Professor Mullan said.

“Unfortunately, exercise is one of the first things to be dropped when you are time poor but it should top the list because of all the mental and physical health benefits.

“Our research found intention and habit exerted independent effects on physical activity within the target population, demonstrating the need for intervention programs to encourage more exercise during the transition.”

Associate Professor Mullan said intervention programs which addressed habit and behaviour would benefit anyone going to university.

“We need to look at habit and past behaviour and see if these can be built on for those who have engaged in the behaviour in the past,” Associate Professor Mullan said.

“For those who have rarely engaged in the behaviour, we need to look at motivation and try and find ways of increasing this.”

The full research paper, Physical Activity and Transitioning to College: The Importance of Intentions and Habits, was published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, and can be found at: