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Young People’s View on Physical Activity: Research Ethics

Introduction

In this dissertation, the author attempts to compare two papers looking at research methods as regards morals and how ethical the methods are. The essay is based on the original article dealing with the “Views of young people towards physical activity: determinants and barriers to involvement”. The author therefore gives a comprehensive critical analysis of the various research methods at play concentrating on such concepts like validity, reliability and generalisability, all the more dwelling on ethical and legal issues. To begin with, a superficial definition of physical activity is in order. According to Rees et al (2001) and Wright et al (2003), physical activity is any observed movement of the body of an individual resulting from the exertion of skeletal muscles. All forms of human motion however simple it is, aimed either at the exploitation of the environment to earn a living or for personal enjoyment are all encompassed in this definition. Physical activity simply involves all forms of exercises that are performed for the purpose of enhancing physical fitness (Wright et al, 2003).

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Majority of young people have been found to ignore the significance of physical activity with varying health implications among them adult obesity, hypertension, coronary heart disease and depression (Green and Thurston, 2002). In fact, numerous research findings report that many young people today spend more of their time in sedentary behaviour than they do engaged in any physical activity. Anderssen and Wold (1992) have attributed this shift in lifestyle majorly to parental failure to promote physical activity in their children as well as advances in technology and a decrease in safe recreational areas.

Main Body

From the foregoing, it is evident that physical activity must be an essential component of the curriculum in the school programme if any meaningful change of attitudes in our students is to be achieved. Experts recommend that students should be engaged in at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day (Wright et al, 2003) for significant growth and development of the youth. Available research findings tend to confirm a marked deviation from this recommendation because close to 16% of children aged between two to fifteen years and 24% of adults aged sixteen years are identified as being obese (Green and Thurston, 2002). These statistics clearly illustrate that physical activity is becoming unpopular amongst young people, a behaviour which is further translated into adulthood. In fact, research findings show that levels of inactivity increase with age as well as gender. As indicated by Rees et al (2001), younger children are more active than older children where boys are shown to be more active than girls. Similarly, the physical environment inhabited by young people has a high correlation to their participation in physical activities. Young people living in rural areas with access to recreational facilities demonstrate higher levels of physical activity than their counterparts found in highly populated urban centers lacking the said essential recreational amenities (Rees et al., 2001).

It is from these dismaying statistics and others that have not been mentioned in this essay that has catapulted the author into wondering if the Physical Education curriculum offered in our schools do actually motivate our students to take part in regular physical activity. This grim picture further stimulates the author to continue wondering whether the physical education provided in schools has any inspirations for the students to apply in adulthood or the students simply stop taking part in such activities once they leave school (Green and Thurston, 2002). The author further wonders if there is any indication of any encouragement of life-long participation in physical activity and sport in students or is it simply an imposition of the ideas upon them by their mentors? Is it possible to develop a more positive, inclusive and enjoyable curriculum that relates more to the student’s interests and learning requirements than what is currently on offer? In order to answer these questions and many more others, the author has decided to critically analyse an article from the journal of health education titled “Views of young people towards physical activity: determinants and barriers to involvement”.

The author of this essay therefore intents to critically analyse selected contributions towards the named article by various writers. The first article written by Rees, Harden, Shepherd, Brunton, Oliver and Oakley outlines views of young people as well as those of their parents towards physical activity involvement. The article also presents a systematic review of research on barriers and facilitators of physical activity involvement in young people (Rees et al, 2001). This article is analysed alongside another article written by Wright, Macdonald and Groom detailing the understanding of physical activity from the point of view of young people in relation to other aspects of their lives (Wright et al, 2003). The other article that is used to do a critical analysis of research methods in this study is written by Green and Thurston from the same journal and presents the points of view of teachers towards promotion and involvement of physical education in young people. The authors of this article demonstrate the promotion of health in schools through physical activity and the pitfalls experienced by teachers in implementing the curriculum due to the prevailing government policies governing the education sector.

Rees, Harden, Shepherd, Brunton, Oliver and Oakley undertook a study dealing with a sample size of 315 first-graders and 365 fifth-graders drawn from a total of twelve elementary schools to investigate physical activity levels of children over a period of one week (Rees et al, 2001). The first sample was composed of 148 girls and 167 boys while the second sample had 145 girls and 220 boys. The results of the study on the children’s physical activity underscored the importance of offering physical education lessons in school on a daily routine basis (Rees et al, 2001). It was also recommended that periods of free time be incorporated in the school curriculum on a daily routine basis. These recommendations were found to emanate from the inherent results of the study that there was no significant difference in physical activity levels between children at different grades (Rees et al, 2001). The findings of this study were found to be consistent with other studies done elsewhere in the world. For instance, Wright et al (2003) demonstrated that physical activity levels in children usually decrease with an increase in age. It was similarly illustrated that excessive weight gain and obesity progressed from childhood into adulthood particularly in people with very low levels of physical activity. It was further pointed out by Wright et al (2003) that this decline in physical activity levels began to set in between the seven to eleven years of age.

Similarly, the study reported on physical activity levels based on gender comparisons. It was illustrated that “boys reached higher levels of physical activity than girls, both on school days and free days” (Anderssen and Wold, 1992 as cited in Rees et al, 2001). The study goes on to report that environmental factors in interaction with the biological development of the child greatly influence the physical activity involvement particularly at puberty (Anderssen and Wold, 1992). For instance, using a sample size of 365 adolescents drawn from high schools, it was demonstrated that environmental factors were significant contributors in most of the observed differences in physical activity in this group of young people (Wright et al, 2003). It was also reported that there was a marked decline in overall physical activity levels of the respondents on free days underscored the importance of teacher-led physical education classes (Green and Thurston, 2002).

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With this brief background information to the findings of the study by Rees, Harden, Shepherd, Brunton, Oliver and Oakley, the author is now at liberty to critically analyse the methodology employed in this study. To begin with, the researchers in this study used an exploratory approach to carry out their mandate. It is reported that the researchers obtained their sample population from a novice lot who did not have any experience in formal physical education lessons. The parents of all respondents were requested to have written approval for their participation in the research. Physical activity levels were determined using Caltrac accelerometers worn by each child around the waist throughout the entire period of the study. Finally, the parents were asked to keep a recorded physical activity data from the Caltrac accelerometer on daily basis (Rees et al, 2001). The author therefore wishes critique this approach which is very involving on the part of the researcher.

According to Bryman (2001), an exploratory study requires that the researcher must personally contact the study and closely follow its proceedings to the final stages. Since Rees, Harden, Shepherd, Brunton, Oliver and Oakley had to stick to these requirements, any deviations to the contrary are deemed to present shortcomings of this type of survey. From the outset, it is established that the results presented by the researchers did not reflect the correct position of the respondents. This was because the researchers did not conduct the study themselves but instead used proxy in the collection of data. Parents and teachers of the participants were requested to collect data on the behalf of the researchers. In the views of the author, this deviation contravened the regulations of exploratory research thereby making the results of the study highly invalid and unreliable (Bryman, 2001).

Moreover, the sampling of the target population was done in a somewhat professional manner but the novice subjects needed close guidance and direction from the researchers but this was not accorded, hence aggravating the margin of error in the data collection. Research findings indicate that for exploratory research data to be valid, the recommended rules have to be adhered to. The fact that the researchers required each child to wear a Caltrac accelerometer around the waist throughout the entire period of the study to determine physical activity in them infringed on their individual rights. This contravened on the ethical aspects of any research method as indicated in Cohen, Manion, and Morrison (2000). It is not legally right to put study subjects through most dehumanising treatments especially if those subjects are human beings (Bryman, 2001 and Cohen, Manion, and Morrison, 2000). The researchers erred in this action and it is the authors’ recommendations that future research should respect ethical requirements of research methodologies.

Although the tool of data collection used in this study was highly recommended (Bryman, 2001), the validity and reliability of the data collected were compromised by the manner in which the process was handled. Parents’ involvement in keeping a detailed activity log for each participant (Rees et al., 2001) in the data collection phase might have just generalised the data without even carrying out the study (Cohen, Manion, and Morrison, 2000). But thanks to the availability of more reliable and valid scientific measurement tools currently in use that was able to restore the validity of the results in this study. Reports indicate that physical activity data in this study were analysed and evaluated using a combination of tools of analysis particularly to validate the results (Bryman, 2001). In this connection, the author tends to agree with the validity of the results presented in this study since they are found to be consistent with the requirements of such findings elsewhere in the world. But on the contrary, the sample size used in this study appears to be too small and at the same time covering a very small geographical extent. Although within the confines of the requirements of this type of study, the author tends to fault the time frame within which the study was carried out. A seven-day period seemed to be a very short study time given that the researchers used proxy in data collection (Bryman, 2001). At the same time, numerous research findings indicate that for any data to be reliable and valid, a nationally representative sample subjected to the treatment for over a considerable length of time should be adopted (Bryman, 2001 and Cohen, Manion, and Morrison, 2000). It is therefore from this standpoint that the results of this study appear to be null and void.

Similarly, the disparity in the number of female and male subjects used in the study in all grades indicates a lot of biases on the part of the researchers who seemed to favour the use of more males than females even in cases where the schools reported higher enrolments in female students than males. This leaning towards favouring male subjects was found to be in contravention of the requirements laid down in drawing of a sample population (Bryman, 2001 and Cohen, Manion, and Morrison, 2000) where a fifty-fifty basis is recommended. Since studies investigating physical activity have all concluded that sport must be accessible to all young people without any discrimination, using a sample population majorly composed of one gender may not fulfill this recommendation (Cohen, Manion, and Morrison, 2000). It is only right for future researchers in this area to strive and draw a sample population adhering to the fifty-fifty basis rule.

In connection to the sample used in this study, it is not stated clearly how the subjects were sampled but one thing is clear that they were treated in somewhat very inhumane manner as already stated elsewhere in this essay. The participants were required to wear the Caltrac accelerometer around their waists all day except when sleeping bathing for the entire seven days of the study. This in the strongest feelings of the author is an infringement on the ethical aspects of the subjects. This atrocity on the part of the participants might have affected their willingness to participate freely in the study. This on one hand might have led to great generalisations of the results (Cohen, Manion, and Morrison, 2000). The author also tends to believe that there were a lot of other generalisations in the results where parents of the sampled children were not in any obligation to keep a consistent detailed activity log for each participant as required by the researchers. This assumption was found to confirm the doubts that the results were not really very valid as indicated by Rees et al (2001).

In critically analysing the paper written by Wright et al (2003), it emerged that it is important to understand physical activity from the young people’s point of view as well as putting other aspects of their lives into consideration. This conclusion was reached at after the analysis of the results obtained from interviews of twenty eight female and thirty four male students drawn from about three high schools in Australia (Wright et al, 2003). Similarly, the methodology employed in this study lacked in gender equity just like as it was discovered in the previous article presented by Rees et al. The researchers involved in this study were found to flout the ethical requirements of research methodologies with such abandon that the results obtained lacked in validity and reliability. In conclusion, the research methods used in this report were found to be greatly in disregard of key aspects such as validity, reliability and devoid of any ethics, legally or otherwise (Cohen, Manion, and Morrison, 2000).

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The second article that need to be critically analysed is written by Green and Thurston which attempts to introduce health related exercise as an effective tool for school going children to gain an optimum level of physical activity during school hours (Green and Thurston, 2002). The study aimed at exploring and understanding the teachers’ perceptions of what encourages and discourages children’s participation in physical activity both inside and outside the school (Green and Thurston, 2002). In conducting this study, it is reported that the researchers used a semi structured qualitative survey involving some 158 Physical Education teachers drawn from 17 secondary schools.

The fundamental aim of this study as indicated by Green and Thurston (2002) was to employ qualitative methodologies for the purpose of gaining an insight into the level of involvement by adolescents in physical activity. The study identified those people involved with the implementation of physical education curriculum in schools as the best suited category of individuals to provide this information. In coming up with the sample population for this study, the article indicates that the researchers used both male and female teachers in equal proportions in order to observe gender parity (Bryman, 2001).

It is clear so far that in conducting this study, the researchers acted in line with the requirements of most research methods. For one, the study attempted to obtain a reliable representative sample population putting into consideration gender equity and a considerable study area. This was necessary to increase the validity and reliability of the results. When this is compared with the first paper by Rees, Harden, Shepherd, Brunton, Oliver and Oakley, it is noted that this is a plus on the part of Green and Thurston. In selecting the sample population, it is reported that a letter detailing the study was administered to all the would-be respondents in public secondary schools. Green and Thurston (2002) explain that each one of the targeted sample population received details of the study and was required to give written consent to take part in a recorded interview in line with recommendations by Cohen, Manion, and Morrison (2000). It is reported that all the interviews were conducted at the workplaces of all the respondents with the minimum instances of inconveniences possible. This fact underscored the importance of ethics in the methodology and was in line with the requirements cited in Cohen, Manion, and Morrison (2000). To stress the importance of ethics in this study, it is further reported that approval to interview the teachers was first sought and gained through the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research ethics committee (Green and Thurston, 2002). This was also in line with the requirements cited in Bryman (2001) and Cohen, Manion, and Morrison (2000).

The fact that the study used a qualitative methodology was another plus because the study was investigating a fundamental aspect in the lives of young people. From Bryman (2001) and Cohen, Manion, and Morrison (2000), qualitative research aims at justifying why events take place while on the other hand quantitative research only attempts to compare causes of phenomena. This methodology was best suited for this study because it was imperative to describe and interpret meanings and experiences of young people in school as accurately as possible (Bryman, 2001). No other method that would have done this any better than the one selected for this study. A requirement of qualitative research as stipulated by Cohen, Manion, and Morrison (2000) is that the “interviewer acknowledges the original perception of the responses given by the interviewee”. From the article presented by Green and Thurston, it is the author’s feeling that the said requirement of qualitative research adhered to the fullest. The reason to this is because reports indicate that the researchers conducting this study visited the respondents at their workstations in order to interview them. Also, the target population was sent details of the study and in return gave written consent to participate recorded in interviews as illustrated by Green and Thurston (2002).

The article goes on to report that the study found out that majority of the teachers had the views that enough was not being done in the delivery of Physical Education in schools because only about 49% of children between the ages of two–eleven years received two hours of PE in school time per week, whereas 26% received less than an hour and a half (Green and Thurston, 2002). Additionally, it was reported that teachers were concerned that using vigorous activity in lessons to create opportunities for pupils to “increase their heart rate could compromise other PE objectives such as developing knowledge and skills” (Green and Thurston, 2002). In the views of the author, the results presented by this study seemed to have a high degree of validity and reliability. This statement can be substantially qualified by having a review of how the data in this case was collected and analysed. The issue of data collection has been dealt with at length in the foregoing discussion and established that the methodology employed was very valid and reliable. Moreover, it has been established that the collection of data for this study “followed the general agreed-upon recommendations” (Bryman, 2001) that the researchers be constantly present in the conduction of the interviews.

On the other hand, it is reported that data analysis in this study was carried out using a very valid and reliable software programme specifically designed to analyse qualitative data as cited in Cohen, Manion, and Morrison (2000) by Green and Thurston (2002). Since the researchers had substantially observed the issue of gender balance in drawing up their sample population, it is in order for the author to conclude that the results presented in the study were a real representative of the whole area under study. This generalisability of the results is in no doubt supported by the caliber of the subjects used in the study. Green and Thurston (2002) report that the respondents used in this study wielded a wide range of experience in their areas of expertise. This piece of information was necessary in strengthen the reliability and validity of the data collected from the sample population. It also made the researchers’ work easier by collecting data from individuals who had the subject matter at their fingertips. Consequently in comparing the data collection methods used in this study and those used in early studies on the physical activity levels of young people, it is the author’s discretion to conclude that the margin of error had been marginally reduced in this study particularly by using modern day scientific tools of measurement (Cohen, Manion, and Morrison, 2000).

The above positive points about the article by Green and Thurston notwithstanding, it has been found that the study had some limitations which seem to have been overlooked and as such need to be addressed accordingly. The sample population used only presented the views of teachers involved in the management of the schools sampled because they were either Heads of Physical Education or Heads of Schools. The views of the ordinary teachers involved in the teaching of Physical Education and other mainstream subjects in the sampled schools were overlooked. This in the views of the author is in itself a limitation in obtaining very valid and reliable results. Secondly, Heads of Physical Education used in the study were not evenly distributed with some regions providing twice the number of respondents as the others and consequently the reported outcomes may not have been a true representative of the whole study area (Bryman, 2001).

Although full data dissemination was reported to have been attained in this study, there were no additional new outcomes that emerged in this study (Green and Thurston, 2002). The two authors further explain that the size of the study area as well as the number of interviews conducted (Green and Thurston, 2002) might have contributed to this lack of additional new outcomes particularly for the Head of Schools sample. Since the intention of the study was to gain a better understanding of the teachers’ perspectives of provision and participation by pupils in physical activity and whether differences between regions existed, it is therefore the author’s recommendations that a larger study area and sample size must be used in future studies (Bryman, 2001). These recommendations are in the backdrop of the strongly held believes of teachers who felt that young people have currently drifted into a state of inactivity and consequently showed a lack of fitness (Anderssen and Wold, 1992). A majority of Heads of Physical Education expressed concern about pupil’s activity decreasing further as they became older as reported by Green and Thurston (2002).

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In regards to determinants and barriers to involvement of young people in physical activity, it is the author’s contention to consider the results and recommendations of the study to be valid and reliable since the research methodology employed has already been established to be acceptable by majority of researchers. The study therefore found out that the following factors were crucial in determining the level of involvement of young people in physical activity. Most teachers cited time constraints as the most underlying barrier to young people’s involvement in physical activity. They claimed the time allocated for teaching Physical Education in most schools was not enough as compared to what was allocated to other curriculum subjects (Green and Thurston, 2002).

Conclusion

It was also found that the “restricted curriculum made pupils to have a limited input into the range of curriculum activities especially those in the age ranges of eleven–fourteen” (Green and Thurston, 2002) where some schools were reported to make it compulsory for pupils in ages of fifteen–sixteen years to study physical education lessons. It was discovered that the teaching of health related exercise lessons in most schools was another barrier in itself. This was because there was no standard method of delivery and as such, inconsistencies as to how the subject was handled were very commonplace in schools (Green and Thurston, 2002). Finally, it was noticed that those schools with the culture of excelling in sports had a desire to encourage elite performance and raise the profile of the school through sporting excellence as explained by Green and Thurston (2002). Yet, there was also a need to encourage mass participation in “enjoyable, health-promoting physical activity” (Green and Thurston, 2002) thereby presenting a conflict of interest.

Other than concentrating on the barriers to physical activity within the curriculum, the study also found out that majority of teachers did not sacrifice their free time to get involved in physical activity. This constituted the undervaluing of physical activity through the lack of volunteering by teachers (Green and Thurston, 2002). In the same vein, the provision of leisure to young people by the community through the local authority played a fundamental role in increasing their level of physical activity. But it was realized that the meager provision of these structures in the community for young people acted as major barrier (Green and Thurston, 2002). Similarly, Green and Thurston (2002) explain that “the amount of exposure children have to activity within institutions was highlighted as a determinant of physical activity and thus the provision of good facilities and agencies such as local authorities played a key role in encouraging activity in children”.

In the study reported by Green and Thurston (2002), facilities were felt to be important by teachers. They believed that having an abundance of facilities available in the school and community gave pupils more chances to be active (Green and Thurston, 2002). It is also reported that it was the teachers’ feeling “that the pupil’s upbringing would affect their confidence in taking part in physical activity” (Green and Thurston, 2002). The teachers suggested that “the social and home environment the child was immersed in would have a direct bearing on their physical activity level particularly their friends, peers and family environment” (Green and Thurston, 2002).

References

Anderssen, N and Wold, B. (1992) Parental and peer influences on leisure-time physical activity in young adolescents. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 63(4), 341-348.

Bryman, A. (2001) Social Research Strategies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, L., Manion, L. and Morrison, K. (2000) Research Methods in Education. Routledge/Falmer.

Green, K and Thurston, M. (2002) Physical Education and Health Promotion: A Qualitative Study of teachers Perceptions. Health Education, 102(3):113-123.

Rees, R et al (2001) Young people and physical activity: a systematic review of research on barriers and facilitators. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

Wright, J., Macdonald, D and Groom, L. (2003) Physical activity and young people: Beyond participation. Taylor & Francis; Abingdon, England.

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