A new study released by Dr Anne Elliott, Lecturer at the University’s London Sports Institute, suggests that some middle-aged people may be deterred from exercise for decades due to bad experiences of physical education (PE) at school.
The study also finds people can be set on completely different pathways in life and experience ‘corporeal dissociation’ - a state of physical detachment which potentially results in adult inactivity and particular choices such as opting for sedentary jobs and hobbies.
With the World Health Organisation identifying physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality, Dr Elliott’s report provides an important understanding of why some adults find it difficult to exercise and suggests how this can be tackled.
“These clients had not done any physical activity for decades and were only choosing to do so now because they were slightly overweight or had chronic illnesses," Dr Anne Elliott, Senior Lecturer at the London Sports Institute
Negative memories of PE
She first became interested in the issue when several personal trainers highlighted that many middle-aged clients struggle to increase their physical activity. It emerged that they all had very negative memories of school PE lessons, often in relation to a particular event.
“These clients had not done any physical activity for decades and were only choosing to do so now because they were slightly overweight or may have had diagnosed or undiagnosed chronic illnesses including arthritis, diabetes or asthma,” says Dr Elliott.
“The problem is many personal trainers or gym practitioners aren’t trained to deal with these individuals who often make up the majority of their clients– middle-aged people with the disposable income for personal training sessions.
"These are likely to be the people who need to re-connect or re-associate with their bodies and physicality. With the right training, they can actually enjoy exercise, get fitter and get healthier.”
Dr Elliott’s report includes interviews with 10 personal trainers and their observations on both active and inactive clients. Additionally, 800 individuals between the ages of 45 to 65 were asked about home, school, leisure and friendships to explore how specific elements during adolescence might trigger corporeal dissociation.
Poor relations with teachers
Survey participants not only recounted unpleasant experiences of PE classes but also poor relations with teachers and classmates. They remembered PE teachers who were only interested in very accomplished pupils, insults from able peers, and their own extreme strategies to avoid PE including continually forgetting their kit, refusing to participate, and truanting.
On the other hand, participants who had positive experiences of PE and school sports carried the success throughout their lives. One individual had been captain of her school netball team and continues to play competitive netball in her 50s.
Dr Elliott has developed a tool to help personal trainers recognise the level of corporeal dissociation in a client and design appropriate programmes to help them stick to an exercise regime.
“Physical exercise is good for physical and mental health,” she says.
“It also protects against chronic and fatal disease which places huge burdens on health systems around the world. Therefore, it is essential that we find solutions to the world’s sedentary problem. Discovering what puts people off being more active is a vital part of this, and my research has a key role to play.”
Read Dr Elliott’s full report, ‘A multi-method investigation into physical activity in middle-age through a lifecourse perspective’.
Find out more about studying sport and exercise science and rehabilitation at Middlesex.