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Children and running: changes in physical fitness, self-efficacy, and health locus of control.

Using 124 children enrolled in fourth and fifth grade classes, psychological and physical effects of a consistent aerobic exercise program for children were evaluated. Classes were randomly assigned to either regular physical education or a program which included three days per week of aerobic training for eight weeks. Physical fitness measurements such as skin fold body fat, resting pulse, and 800 meter run time were taken in addition to pre and post psychological measures and for selected subjects a six month follow-up was conducted. Results indicated the running group had lower resting pulse and higher running self-efficacy scores at the end of the program. Type A scores, parents' activity level, ~and body fat scores were correlated with run times. After six months most differences between groups had disappeared. However, the running group evidenced higher Health Locus of Control scores.

Utilisant 124 enfants immatriculants dans des classes au quatre et cinq nimeau d'une ecole primaire, les effets psychologiques et physiques d'un programme d'exercice aerobique reguliere pour les enfants ils sont evalue. Les classes se sont donnees en partage au hazard a l'un et l"autre l'education physique reguliere et le programme de troisjours chaque semaine pour huit semaines de l'education aerobique. On a utilise le mesurage de bon snte comme le bourrelets de graisse, la frequence des pouls a repos, et le temps d'une course de 800 metres. En plus, on dirigiait le mesurage pre- et apres psychologique, et, pur les sujets choisis, une action de soutien. Les resultats indiquent que le groupe menant la course avaient plus bas frequence du pouls a repos et plus hauts points d'efiicacite de soi en la course au fin du programme. On a mis les points de "Type A," le niveau de l'activite paternelle et les points de bourrelets de graisse en correlation avec les temps des courses. Plus des differences entre les groups ils ont disparu depouis six mois. Cependent, le groupe de course a demontre plus hauts pointes en le "Health Locus of Control."

In the past decade numerous studies have been published which have documented positive changes in adult physical fitness as a result of participation in aerobic exercise (Blair, Goodyear, Gibbons, & Cooper, 1984; Morgan, 1985; Paffenbarger, Hyde, Wing, & Steinmetz, 1984; Powell, 1988). In addition, positive psychological changes have also been reported following participation in regular aerobic exercise programs (Dishman, 1988; Doan & Scherman, 1987; Folkins & Sime, 1981; Labbe, Welsh, & Delaney, 1988). The beneficial changes which have been reported are varied and have included decreases in depression and anxiety and increases in self-esteem, self-efficacy and creativity. However, studies measuring physical fitness and psychological changes in children as a result of participation in aerobic exercise have been less frequently reported. These are important issues to address in light of the recommendation of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which advocates greater participation by school aged children in physical activities that are appropriate for the maintenance of an effective cardiorespiratory system (U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, 1980). Ross and Gilbert (1985) found many children in this country do not participate in regular physical education classes and that even when children do participate in school physical education activities only about 40% of the students exerted themselves during exercise. Thus, the majority of children are not exercising at a level thought to be necessary to maintain cardiorespiratory fitness.

A careful review of the literature regarding children and aerobic exercise indicates several methodological as well as conceptual inadequacies. This is unfortunate because as noted above, appropriate physical activity has been shown to be important in long term physical and emotional well being in adults. Attitudes and habits established in childhood regarding exercise may have long term consequences. Several of the methodological and conceptual problems will be addressed in this paper.

One of the most obvious deficiencies in the research has been that many of the aerobic exercise studies with children have focused singularly on physical fitness changes or on psychological changes, but not on both. Without appropriate documentation of physical fitness changes, it is not possible to assess whether actual fitness changes are necessary for psychological changes to occur or whether psychological changes always accompany fitness changes. Those studies which have concurrently measured both physical and psychological changes have frequently reported a variety of measures which are not necessarily logically linked to improvement in cardiovascular fitness. For example, studies have reported such diverse measures as scores on the Bender-Gestalt and performance on a mazes task (Tuckman & Hinkle, 1986), the draw-a-person test, scores on intelligence tests and global measures of personality (Folkins & Sime, 1981). Conflicting results have been reported; some studies indicating no effects in those areas, while other studies report positive changes.

The research literature on aerobic exercise suggests specific physiological changes will typically occur with participation in an aerobic exercise program such as jogging (Serfass & Gerberich, 1984). Research indicates a minimum of 20 minutes, three times per week of aerobic exercise as a necessary requirement to achieve changes in aerobic fitness (Martin & Dubbert, 1987). Thus, a second problem is that several of the studies which have been reported do not meet this minimum basic level of exercise. Even active sports such as tennis, volleyball, basketball, etc. do not meet the criteria to be termed aerobic because of their start and stop nature and do not provide the continuous exertion to keep heart rate at a steady, high level. In other studies the activities in which the children participated are not clearly defined and it is difficult to ascertain whether the participants engaged in sufficient levels of aerobic activity. Other methodological problems are that many of the studies have very small numbers of children, have no control groups for comparison, or use special populations with a varied assortment of diagnoses or behavioral problems (Evans, Evans, Schmid, & Pennypacker, 1985; Etscheidt & Ayllon, 1987; Hilyer, Wilson, Dillon, & Caro, 1982; Klein & Deffenbacher, 1977; Luce, Delquadri & Hall, 1980; MacMahon & Gross, 1987). Thus, generalization to larger groups of children becomes problematic. In most studies, there have been little or no follow up reports and long term effects are consequently unknown.

In this study an attempt was made to include both relevant psychological and physical measures. A review of the aerobic exercise literature indicates that there are a variety of psychological changes which may logically occur following exercise, or psychological factors which may predict exercise performance. For example, Dishman and Ickes (1981) have proposed that a self-motivation inventory in conjunction with body fat data can predict which individuals will persist in an exercise program. In the current study, Dishman's self-motivation inventory was slightly modified for the reading level of school aged children. Based on Dishman's work, it was speculated that scores on this instrument might be related to changes in aerobic fitness. That is, children who were more highly motivated should put forth more effort and thus would demonstrate greater physical improvement than those children with lower scores on the self-motivation instrument. Additionally, aerobic fitness or running programs have been shown to have beneficial effects on measures of self-efficacy regarding the specific type of exercise involved (Kaplan, Atkins, & Reinsch, 1984). In the present study a self-efficacy measure containing items both unrelated to running and items specific to aerobic activity was created. It was expected that self-efficacy scores related to running would increase as children in the jogging program became more proficient at running, but that generalized self-efficacy would be unaffected by the jogging program.

Another factor which has been reported as associated with girls' participation in a running program is the level of parental participation in exercise (Welsh & Labbe, 1989). Therefore, we assessed parental attitudes and their self report of physical activities with the expectation that if parents valued and participated in physical activities, their children would be more likely to demonstrate greater physical performance. Additionally, Type A behavior has been shown to be a factor in predicting exercise performance in adults participating in a running program (Welsh et al., 1988). However, this factor has not been reported in exercise programs involving children. Other studies of Type A behavior in children indicate that children with higher scores tend to strive for better performance (Matthews & Angulo, 1980; Matthews & Volkin, 1981). Thus, it logically follows that children with high Type A scores may perform better in a running program than children with lower scores. Finally, a measure of health locus of control was given to determine whether exercise could effect those perceptions. Duke, Johnson, and Nowicki (1977) found increased internality on this measure at a fitness camp program for children. A similar finding from a study at a running camp for high school runners was reported by Labbe', Welsh, Coldsmith, and Hickman (1991).

In the current study we have evaluated relevant physical fitness and psychological variables, including an adequate level of aerobic activity with the running program, and utilized an appropriate attention control group. In addition, a relatively large group of children was utilized and follow-up data were collected.



Subjects were 70 fourth graders and 54 fifth graders from two private schools. Sixty-three were girls and sixty-one were boys. The students were predominantly white and from middle to high income level families. The students were already enrolled in the regular physical activities classes at their respective schools.


The first phase of the study consisted of having students and parents complete a variety of psychological and physical fitness measures. Once the measures were completed, one grade at each school was randomly assigned to either the running or attention control group condition. Thus, one fourth grade group and one fifth grade group were assigned to running three days per week, while the other fourth grade and fifth grade groups continued in their regular physical activity programs.

The second phase of the study consisted of an eight week exercise program. For the attention control group, these programs were varied and included some jogging, volleyball, basketball, and playground games. These are typical P.E. activities and do not require maintenance of sustained high heart rate the prerequisite three times per week necessary for development of cardiovascular fitness. Research assistants attended these classes and aided the P.E. teachers. The running groups participated in an aerobic program which incorporated three days per week of jogging during the P.E. time. The goal was to maintain target heart rate for at least 20 continuous minutes. On the other days of the week, these students participated in regular P.E. classes. Again, research assistants attended these classes and aided the teachers. At the end of the eight week program, all students completed a variety of physical and behavioral measures. The same physical measures taken during the pre run assessment were administered as well as the Children's Health Locus of Control Scale, and general self-efficacy and running self-efficacy scales.

It was possible to collect a six month follow-up assessment during the subsequent academic year at one of the participating schools. During the follow-up period, all children participated in regular physical education classes for three months, followed by three months of summer vacation. Physical fitness activities were not monitored during the summer. Because of schedule constraints at one school, it was not possible to conduct follow-up procedures with those two classes. Thus, the follow- up data were collected on the two classes at the other school. Again, the same physical measures taken during the pre run and post run assessment phases were administered, as well as the Children's Health Locus of Control Scale, and the two self-efficacy measures.

Dependent Measures

Physical fitness measures. The following measures were taken on each subject: height, weight, triceps skin fold, calf skin fold, resting pulse rate, 800 meter run time. Height and weight measures were taken on a standard balance scale. Skin fold measurements were taken by a trained technician with Lange skin fold calipers. Pulse rate was measured by a stethoscope and stop watch. The 800 meter distance was used to assess aerobic fitness, since it is short enough for most children to complete, but long enough to determine fitness level (Tuckman & Hinkle, 1986). These runs were conducted on an outdoor rubberized 400 meter track and times were measured with a stop watch.

Psychological measures. Children completed the following instruments:

1. Children's Self-Motivation Inventory. This is an adapted version of Dishman's Self-Motivation Inventory (Dishman, 1982) which we modified to accommodate the reading level of the children. Forty items are rated on a three point Likert scale ranging from hardly ever like me to often like me. The content of the items include perceived motivation and effort.

2. Children's Health Locus of Control Scale (CHLC). The CHLC consists of 20 true/false items. Parcel and Meyer (1978) evaluated the test on 140 children in grades 3 through 5, 73 were girls and 67 were boys. Test-retest results indicated that scores tended to increase with age and showed very little gender difference. Construct validity was supported as the Spearman correlation coefficient for CHLC and Nowicki-Strickland Children's Locus of Control for the total group was .501 (p |is less than~ .001).

3. Self-Efficacy Measures. These questionnaires were presented in a Likert scale format in which the children rated how well they believed they could perform a variety of tasks, involving both physical and social situations. Children rated the activities on a 3-point scale from not very good to very good. Some items were non-related to running such as how well the children thought they could handle a variety of social situations and non-aerobic physical activities. Other items asked specifically how far children thought they could run. The format used was recommended by Kaplan et al. (1984) to measure specific exercise self-efficacy.

Parents completed the following two instruments:

1. Parents' Physical Activity Questionnaire. This instrument assessed attitudes and exercise habits of the parents. Each item was rated on a 5-point scale with increasing scores indicating greater approval of and involvement in exercise behavior. A similar questionnaire was utilized in a previous study (Welsh & Labbe, 1989).

2. Myth Type A. This is a questionnaire of 18 items in which an adult is asked to rate the child on a Likert scale of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating extremely uncharacteristic and 5 indicating extremely characteristic. Test-retest reliability over a three month period for different grades ranged from r = .76 to .86, p |is less than~ .001. Several studies which report the predictive and concurrent validity support the use of this measure (Matthews & Angulo, 1980; Matthews & Volkin, 1981).


Pre-Post Analyses

Analyses of covariance were performed on the post test scores for each of the 9 measures which were given both pre and post, using the pre test scores for each variable as the covariate. Comparisons were made across the experimental and control conditions and across gender and grade. Refer to Table 1 for F ratios and level of significance for each dependent variable.


Significant F ratios for treatment vs. control groups were as follows: resting pulse rates, F(1,122) = 11.50, p |is less than~ .001 and running self-efficacy, F(1,104) = 6.95, p |is less than~ .01. Further evaluation of the data indicated the following differences between groups: the running groups had significantly lower resting pulse rates (M = 78.01) than did the control groups (M = 83.31) at the end of the treatment phase. For post running self-efficacy scores, the control groups' scores was M = 2.17 while treatment groups' scores was M = 2.49.

Significant F ratios for gender differences in triceps body fat measurements were obtained, F (1,116) = 3.99, p |is less than~ .05). Further analysis of the data indicated that girls had higher caliper measurements of the triceps (M = 14.00) than did boys (M = 12.53). Significant F ratios for grade differences were as follows: 800 meter run time, F(1,122) = 12.09, p |is less than~ .001) and resting pulse, F(1,122) = 8.57, p |is less than~ .01). The fourth graders ran slower than the fifth graders (M = 250.70 vs. M = 231.18). The fourth graders had lower resting pulse rates (M = 79.42) than did the fifth graders (M = 89.62).

Pearson Product Moment Correlations were calculated between the variables which were thought might predict running performance. Type A scores and running times were significantly correlated both pre and post (pre r = -.24, p |is less than~ .01; post r = -.25, p |is less than~ .01). Scores on the parents' questionnaire indicating endorsement of physical activity were also significantly correlated with run times pre and post (pre r = -.19, p |is less than~ .01; post r = -.23, p |is less than~ .05). Pre treatment body fat measurements and run times were significantly correlated (pre run triceps r = .50, p |is less than~ .001, and calf r = .51, p .001) as were post-treatment bodyfat measurements and post-treatment run times (post run triceps r = .47, p |is less than~ .001; and calf r = .53, p |is less than~ .001).


Six Month Follow-up

Results of the six-month follow-up were based on the two classes at one school. One class was a control group and one was a running group. Analysis of covariance indicated the following significant differences between the running group and the control group: Children's Health Locus of Control, F(1.44) = 7.89, p |is less than~ .01) and height, F(1,44) = 13.00, p |is less than~ .001). Further analysis of the data indicated that the control group's mean score (M = 34.04) was lower than the treatment group's (M = 36.92) on the Health Locus of Control Scale. Refer to Table 2 for F ratios on all nine dependent variables.

Pearson Product Moment Correlations were calculated between selected follow-up variables which were thought to predict running performance. Pre Type A scores and follow-up run time were significantly correlated (r = -.39, p |is less than~ .01), both final body fat measurements with follow-up run times were significantly correlated(r = .50, p |is less than~ .0002, r = .49, p |is less than~ .0003).


The results of this study indicate the inclusion of running three times per week into an ongoing elementary school physical education program results in both lower resting pulse rates for children and an increase in the evaluation of their ability to run. The lower pulse rate suggests that cardiovascular conditioning had improved in the running groups even though the running groups' speed on the post 800-meter run was no faster than that of the control groups. Furthermore, there was a differential effect on resting heart rate such that the fourth-grade treatment group had far lower pulse rates-than any other group. However, the lower pulse rate effect was no longer evident at the six month follow-up, indicating that the beneficial effect of running diminishes without consistent aerobic exercise. Although Tuckman and Hinkle (1986) found that running decreased boys' but not girls' bodyfat, we found no decrease in either gender. As expected, girls in all groups had significantly higher bodyfat measures. Tuckman and Hinkle also reported that children in a running group had improved running times compared to the control group, which was not found in the present study. However, on the day that the fourth-grade treatment group performed the post 800-meter run test, the temperature was excessively high and much warmer than the preceding day when the control group ran. Thus, the weather may have significantly contributed to the failure to demonstrate a greater improvement in run times for the treatment groups. This factor may have also contributed to the unusual results that although fourth graders ran slower than fifth graders, the fourth graders had significantly lower resting pulse rates than the fifth graders. Lower resting pulse rates are generally thought to be associated with better cardiovascular fitness. Holding the temperature more consistent, perhaps through use of an indoor track facility, might be a goal in future studies.

As expected, no change in general self-efficacy was found, however the children who participated in the running program improved significantly in their running self-efficacy scores as compared to the attention control groups. Similar results were found with COPD patients in a rehabilitation program (Kaplan et al., 1984). The patients in that exercise program increased their self-efficacy on tasks similar to those included in their rehabilitation program, but not on tasks unrelated to those activities. The finding that generalized self-efficacy did not change is similar to other studies with children which have failed to find improvement in more general variables such as self esteem or personality dimensions as a result of aerobic exercise. It is important to note that the current study was conducted with non-clinical groups of children and we were not expecting any significant changes in behavioral or emotional functioning as a result of participation in the running program. In studies with children with behavioral or emotional problems, more generalized changes in self-efficacy might occur as a result of successful completion of an aerobic program. This has been the case with clinical samples of adults participating in aerobic activity. At the 6-month follow-up, there was no difference in running self-efficacy scores between the treatment and control groups, indicating that continued experience may be crucial for maintaining specific self-efficacy beliefs.

Although improvement in health locus of control was evidenced in the running group, this change was not shown until the 6-month follow-up assessment. It may be that changes in internality may take a longer time to develop. Further research in this area is warranted as others have also found changes in health locus of control after engaging in a physical activity program (Duke et al., 1977; Labbe et al., 1991).

An unexpected finding was that the Children's Self-Motivation Inventory scores were not correlated with running performances. In other studies Dishman's instrument has been used to predict compliance, which was not a variable evaluated in this study, but it may not relate to performance. However, several other variables were found to be related to performance. These included scores on the Type A instrument, parental attitudes and bodyfat measurements. Children with higher Type-A scores consistently ran faster at the end of treatment and at the six month follow-up. These children may be more competitive in general and therefore put forth more effort when being evaluated. A similar finding with adult women (Welsh et al., 1988) was found in which women with higher Type A scores ran faster than their counterparts with lower Type A scores. This is consistent also with the findings of Matthews and colleagues (1980, 1981) who examined the relationship between Type A scores and children's performance on a variety of tasks. In general, children with higher Type A scores performed at a higher level than children with lower scores.

Reported parental attitudes and exercise habits were significantly correlated with the child's running performance. In a previous study girls who participated in a running event were more likely to have parents who themselves were physically active and valued exercise for their children (Welsh & Labbe, 1989). The effect of parental role models may be an important factor in the level of children's physical fitness.

In conclusion, participation in a daily physical education class may not be sufficient for cardiovascular fitness, unless consistent aerobic exercise is incorporated. Although participation in aerobic exercise may not produce global changes in psychological functioning, specific changes can occur. These include self-efficacy regarding aerobic exercise and greater internal locus of control of health beliefs.

Also, children who perform well in running are more likely to have relevant parental role models. Parent involvement in, and endorsement of, exercise may be an important factor to assess in future studies regarding children's fitness.

This study used a rather select sample of predominantly white, upper middle class, private school children. Further studies with samples more similar to the general population would enhance the generalizability of the findings. Additionally, the current study was only in effect for eight weeks. Although this length of time may be sufficient for some fitness changes to occur, longer term intervention may create more permanent behavior change and concomitant physical and psychological benefits.

Ideally, future studies may need to more accurately assess actual exercise levels, by determining exertion during exercise. For example, continuous monitoring of heart rate level would ensure that participants were exercising at a sufficiently strenuous level to bring about cardiovascular fitness.

We would like to thank the physical education teachers, Rob Dodson, Charlie Windham, and Tommy Hearn for allowing us to work with the children and providing assistance in collecting data. We would also like to thank the following psychology students for assistance in carrying out the program and scoring of materials: Stella Brown, Scott Simmons, Chuck Jernigan, Melissa McNeil, and Lisa Giles. Thanks also to Ross Matchett for his assistance in taking skin fold measurements.


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Author:Labbe, Alise E.; Welsh, Cay
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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