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Factors Affecting Participation: The Social Environment

When we think of physical activity and the social environment, we usually think of the relationships that encourage or support an individual who is participating in exercise or sport. Or we might think of the relationships that develop between individuals participating in the same program. Families, friends, and peers provide a social element to physical activity.

However, the social environment is also about larger connections and relationships within a community or an organization, such as a school or workplace. If physical activity is the norm in a particular social environment (e.g., family, culture, community, or workplace), an individual is more likely to be physical active.

What are some of the aspects of the social environment that influence an individual’s decision to participate in physical activity?

  • Group of womenFamily, friends, peers, teachers, health care providers—all kinds of people influence an individual’s perception of or involvement in physical activity—in both positive and negative ways. Positive influence is typically referred to as social support. 
  • Physical activity provides an opportunity to socialize and have fun with others.
  • Social climate affects participation. What is the social climate within facilities, organizations, parks, or other communities? Do individuals feel accepted? Is physical activity valued? Are supports in place that encourage everyone to participate?
  • Many physical activity programs (e.g., in schools, at workplaces, through recreation centres) are inherently social, but the degree of inclusion varies from program to program. A socially inclusive program is welcoming and appropriate for everyone, regardless of culture, gender, age, or ability.
  • Marketing materials convey a great deal about an organization’s social environment.
  • Organizations and institutions such as churches, schools, or community leagues provide the opportunity for social networking, but they can also create a sense of belonging and an awareness of other events or opportunities in the community, including those related to physical activity.
  • Social environment is affected by perceived safety issues. Individuals will not want to participate in activities in areas that don’t feel safe. For example, a well-lit, landscaped path feels more secure than a path hidden behind cement buildings or under a bridge.

Two couples talkingSupporting Physical Activity at the Social Level

When supporting physical activity on a social level, consider the following:

  • Encourage individuals to use work-out buddies or partners
  • Involve family, friends, and perhaps, other practitioners in supporting a physical activity plan
  • Provide a positive, safe, and appropriate environment for socializing
  • Use appropriate marketing and communications materials, ensuring images and messages are sensitive to culture, abilities, gender, and age
  • Openly discuss the concept of inclusion with fellow employees or your staff
  • Involve community members in decision making. This will foster a sense of belonging and ensure that you meet individual need.
  • Learn about the different cultures that use your organization or services
  • Adapt programs to meet different social needs
  • Address safety issues, by ensuring neighborhoods and organizations are secure and attractive
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