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Social Environment Level: Culture

Mosaic or melting pot?

Alberta is a multicultural province. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people live on reserves and settlements, and in cities, towns and rural areas across the province. Many new Canadians settle in Alberta, and immigrant families that have lived in Alberta for generations continue to speak their mother languages, observe traditional rituals, and continue cultural practices.

Research suggests that a person’s culture shapes their attitudes toward and involvement in physical activity, a view that was confirmed by the participants in our focus groups.

How does culture influence physical activity?

When developing physical activity programs and opportunities, keep in mind the cultural factors that might influence participation.


  • Aboriginal youth campingIn North America, few people walk to do errands
  • Some cultures accept that men participate in sports, but that women do not
  • Some types of physical activity are valued more than others
    • Household chores and physical labour are not considered physical activity in the same way as recreational and leisure activities
  • In some cultures, women are responsible for taking care of the home and children. Taking time away from these tasks for recreational or leisure physical activity is deemed inappropriate (Hoebeke, 2008; Mansfield, 2009; Caperchione et al., 2009)


  • In some cultures, family and community responsibilities take precedence over recreational activity. Taking time to exercise can be seen as selfish.
  • In some cultures, clothing requirements can restrict involvement in physical activity
    • Women must wear skirts or a hijab
    • Men must wear a turban
  • Some religious practices and holidays may affect an individual’s ability to participate in scheduled programs
    • Many Muslim men and women pray regularly throughout the day. A scheduled physical activity program may not be able to accommodate this time constraint (Caperchione et al., 2009)

Perspectives on health

  • In North America, we accept “Western” medicine and views on health. We value longevity and youth. Many people participate in physical activity and eat well because we believe this will make us healthier and help us live longer.
  • North American ideas about body image lead to many misconceptions about health (e.g., to be thin is to be healthy)
  • Other cultures do not associate thinness with health (Thompson et al. 2002)
  • In some cultures, sweating and heavy breathing are considered unhealthy and should be avoided (Caperchione et al., 2009 )
  • In some cultures, good health and longevity are left "in the hands of a higher power" (Caperchione et al., 2009)
  • In some cultures, holistic views of health consider more than just physical well-being
    • Many First Nations use the medicine wheel to encourage overall health that includes spiritual, physical, mental, and social wellness

Literacy and language Asian couple reading

  • People who are new to Canada may not know how to read or write in English (or French)
  • Some people who have lived in Canada for generations may not have learned to read or write
  • Understanding programs and activity guides, or following exercise instruction, is difficult in a second language
  • Not all cultural groups are aware of the benefits of physical activity, so providing translated material and social marketing campaigns to these groups can be a challenge (Van Duyn et al., 2007)
  • The steps necessary to register in a program may not be communicated clearly. For example, in order to attend a physical activity class, sometimes you must be a member of a club. Usually you need to pay a fee. Sometimes, you may need to fill out a number of forms. For those new to the system, this may be confusing and intimidating.

Social acceptance and inclusion

  • An individual may be afraid of encountering prejudice and discrimination due to ethnicity, race, or cultural heritage
  • Some people feel more comfortable interacting with others of a similar background and identity. Depending on the facility and organization, this can be a motivator or a barrier to physical activity participation (Belza et al., 2004).
    Note: Read the Social Access section to learn more.

I’m sure a lot of us are being active doing housework . . . In my country, too, that’s how we are being active at home, you know, the chores and doing gardening and stuff like that.
New Canadian focus group participant

Lots of people still hunt at home. I’m waiting for a moose to fill my deep freeze. . . . I know my husband . . . fish[es] lots, he smokes a lot of fish. I’m not a berry picker but I know . . . it’s a big thing this time of year.
Aboriginal focus group participant

Culture and Physical Activity: An Ecological Approach

Many focus group participants explained how their culture influenced their ability or willingness to participate in physical activities. To create a culturally inclusive environment, use strategies that incorporate the various levels of an ecological model:
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  • The Individual
  • The Social Environment
  • The Physical Environment
  • Policies and Regulations

Strategies for culture and physical activity


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