George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Study finds educational divide on levels of physical activity

Tue, 08/19/2014

LAWRENCE — People's educational attainment influences their level of physical activity both during the week and on weekends, according to a study that includes two University of Kansas researchers.

The research team found people without a high school degree perform significantly less physical activity on weekends compared with a college graduate, and that each higher level of education in adults is linked to more physical activity.

"Educational attainment predicts physical activity differently on weekends and weekdays," said Jarron M. Saint Onge, assistant professor of sociology and the study's lead author. "Importantly, we focus not simply on total time people are engaged in recommended levels of physical activity but the quality of the activity by focusing on the average levels of activity intensity per minute by day. An understanding of the factors that reduce time spent in low-intensity or sedentary behaviors can inform activity intervention measures and could potentially reduce socioeconomic status differences in preventable morbidity and mortality."

While work is a frequently cited barrier to exercise, the study finds evidence of a more complex relationship. For example, those who take more steps (as measured by an accelerometer) during the week, presumably at work, are less likely to be active on weekends.

Saint Onge and co-authors Kyle Chapman, a KU doctoral candidate in sociology, and Patrick M. Krueger, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Denver, will present their findings at the 109th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association this week in San Francisco. Their presentation will focus on "Objective Physical Activity Patterns of U.S. Adults by Educational Status."

The researchers examined objective accelerometer data from the 2005-06 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that measures how many censored steps U.S. adults take per day and the intensity of those steps, plus the amount of sedentary time, or time spent sitting daily. By focusing on intensity, researchers can determine the amount of time an individual spends in various activity categories such as sedentary, moderate or vigorous activity.

Chapman said the research team was able to remove several other factors, such as income disparities and whether individuals mostly sit or stand at work, and the team still found educational attainment divided how people approached physical activity during certain times of a week.

"Education affects people both at the individual level and at their social level," Chapman said. "Physical activity is encouraged or discouraged in different groups."

The study found that people with a college degree would spend an average of 8.72 hours of sedentary, or sitting, time on a weekday compared with 7.48 hours for a person without a high school degree. Chapman said the person with less education likely works at a job that requires more standing or physical activity than a person who mostly sits at work.

However, on weekends, a person with a college degree spends an average of 8.12 hours a day in sedentary time, meaning they sit down less on the weekends, while a person without a high school degree actually spends more sedentary time at 7.86 hours per day than they would during the week.

Similarly, a college-educated person spends more time performing moderate physical activity on weekends, while a person without a high school diploma spends less time doing moderate physical activity. Chapman said past research has found that less-educated groups of people typically spend more time engaged in occupational physical activity at their jobs during the week; however, that occupational activity may take place at low energy thresholds, include repetitive motions and may have potentially negative health consequences.

Chapman said the key for future research would be to explore why this divide is occurring, but he said the current findings could emphasize how public health initiatives that focus on physical activity could perhaps be customized based on a person's educational attainment.

"You have to be flexible. We have to give people different ideas," Chapman said. "We have to have discussions on what works for some and what works for others. Giving people options so they can try and not just say, 'If you want to be healthy you need to wake up at 5 a.m., and you need to go to the gym for two hours. Then you can go to work. That's how it's going to work.' Well, that might work for somebody, but maybe not everybody."

A grant from the National Institute On Aging of the National Institutes of Health supported this research.

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