In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Physical Activity and Exercise

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Theory-Based Adult Physical Activity Interventions
  • Theory-Based Adolescent Physical Activity
  • Internet-Based Studies
  • Environmental Influence

Public Health Physical Activity and Exercise
Jeffrey Hallam
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0012


Understanding the role of physical activity and exercise behavior is vitally important to the public’s health. While it could be argued that there was a fitness boom in the United States during the 1970s, the research shows that in 2010 a majority of children, adolescents, adults, and older adults did not engage in enough exercise and/or physical activity to gain health benefits. Indeed, the lack of exercise and physical activity is detrimental to health. Exercise is a health-directed behavior that is a subset of physical activity. People engage the structured and repetitive behavior that is exercise to gain health benefits and improve fitness. Physical activity is a broader term that describes a health-related behavior. For instance, a person may ride a bike for transportation to and from work and thus gain health benefits from engaging in the physical activity. The purpose of riding the bike is not directed at health but for transportation purposes and is considered physical activity. An understanding of this distinction is important for practitioners and researchers who are studying the roles of physical activity and exercise behavior in the public’s health. Exercise and physical activity psychology research and practice are in their infancy. Most of the earlier work focuses on exercise behavior and transitions to a focus on physical activity. This is a function of understanding of the roles of both physical activity and exercise and the epidemiological evidence that shows how few people engage in physical activity and exercise. The resources described in this section focus on the determinants and theories that best lend themselves to the development of effective intervention programs. There is a progression to exercise behavior research. First, it focused on describing the rates of physical activity and exercise, then, it observed the determinants of physical activity and exercise behavior, followed by the development of psychosocial-based interventions. Currently, it focuses on the development of environmental based (built, policy, and social) interventions.

Introductory Works

The science of the promotion of physical activity and exercise behavior is relatively young. While the health benefits of physical activity and exercise behavior are well documented, research regarding how to promote these health benefits is not as readily available. The following citations provide the basis for understanding the introductory work in the promotion of physical activity and exercise behavior. Cohen, et al. 1980 is one of the first to examine self-regulation in an exercise-behavior context. Blair 1984 provides the seminal text on how to assess exercise behavior, while Casperson, et al. 1985 provides specific definitions of exercise behavior and physical activity. Dishman, et al. 1985 provides an in-depth discussion of the determinants of physical activity, and Sallis, et al. 1986 extends this discussion by presenting the predictors of the adoption and maintenance of physical activity. Dishman 1990 adds to and King, et al. 1992 summarizes what was known about the determinants of physical activity at the time. Dzewaltowski 1994 provides insight into physical activity through a social cognitive approach, and Baranowski, et al. 1998 provides an excellent overview of the effectiveness of physical activity interventions and concludes that we must take a step back and develop rigorous, theory-based interventions. Dunn, et al. 1999 conducts one of the first studies to examine structured and lifestyle physical activity interventions. These references provide the foundation of physical activity and exercise behavior research.

  • Baranowski, Tom, Cheryl Anderson, and Cindy Carmack. 1998. Mediating variable framework in physical activity interventions: How are we doing? How might we do better? American Journal of Preventive Medicine 15.4: 266–297.

    This review study examines twenty-five physical activity studies and forty-five correlational physical activity studies to examine how a mediating variable framework was used in current research. The results show there was limited effectiveness in improving physical activity, accounting for less than 30 percent of the variance in most cases. The authors suggest that more physical activity research should focus on the predictors of physical activity and the interventions demonstrated to effect change in those predictor variables. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Blair, S. N. 1984. How to assess exercise habits and physical fitness. In Behavioral health: A handbook of health enhancement and disease prevention. Edited by J. Matarazzo, S. Weiss, J. Herd, and N. Miller, 424–447. New York: Wiley.

    Provides a detailed description for assessing physical activity and exercise. Provides the initial interview tool for physical activity and exercise.

  • Casperson, C. J., K. E. Powell, and G. M. Christenson. 1985. Physical activity, exercise and physical fitness: Definitions and distinctions for health-related research. Public Health Reports 100.2: 126–131.

    The authors define exercise and physical activity, which helped to refine research design and measurement.

  • Cohen, Esther, Donna Gelfand, David Dodd, Judi Jensen, and Charles Turner. 1980. Self-control practices associated with weight loss maintenance in children and adolescents. Behavior Therapy 11.1: 26–37.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7894(80)80033-5

    Examines self-regulatory factors associated with children’s and adolescents’ weight maintenance and overweight status. Participants who maintained or lost weight reported more self-regulatory skills than the normal-weight and the weight-gain groups. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Dishman, R. K. 1990. Determinants of participation in physical activity. In Exercise, fitness and health: A consensus of current knowledge. Edited by Claude Bouchard, Roy J. Shephard, Thomas Stephens, John R. Sutton, and B. D. McPherson, 73–101. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

    Provides an excellent review of what was known about the determinants of physical activity.

  • Dishman, R. K., J. F. Sallis, and D. R. Orenstein. 1985. The determinants of physical activity and exercise. Public Health Reports 100.2: 158–171.

    Provides an excellent review of the factors that influence physical activity. The authors categorize the variables based on the characteristics of the behavior, the environment, and the person. Informs much of the theory-based research in physical activity.

  • Dunn, Andrea L., Bess H. Marcus, James B. Kampert, Melissa E. Garcia, Harold W. Kohl, and Steven N. Blair. 1999. Comparison of lifestyle and structured interventions to increase physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness: A randomized trial. Journal of the American Medical Association 281.4: 327–334.

    DOI: 10.1001/jama.281.4.327

    A twenty-four-month study that examines differences in structured and lifestyle physical activity interventions. The primary conclusion of the study is that lifestyle physical activity is as effective as structured physical activity at improving physical activity, cardio respiratory fitness, and blood pressure.

  • Dzewaltowski, David A. 1994. Physical activity determinants: A social cognitive approach. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 26.11: 1395–1399.

    Provides an overview of the application of social cognitive theory to physical activity. Stresses the importance of examining self-efficacy for physical activity. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • King, A., S. Blair, D. Bild, et al. 1992. Determinants of physical activity and intervention in adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 24.6 (suppl.): S221–S236.

    Summarizes what was known about the determinants of physical activity and describes the types of interventions that have been evaluated with adults. The authors identify the primary gaps in knowledge and provide recommendations for future research. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Sallis, James F., William L. Haskell, Stephen P. Fortmann, Karen M. Vranizan, C. Barr Taylor, and Douglas S. Solomon. 1986. Predictors of adoption and maintenance of physical activity in a community sample. Preventive Medicine 15.4: 331–341.

    DOI: 10.1016/0091-7435(86)90001-0

    This cross-sectional study provides a foundation for understanding the predictors of physical activity. The results include adoption and maintenance of physical activity prediction models. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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