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Understanding physical activity through the experiences of adolescent girls.


Researchers have found that female youths are particularly vulnerable to withdrawing from sport and physical activity programs in early adolescence (see Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2010). However, there is an absence of a comprehensive, emic description of how female adolescents experience physical activity. Open-ended semi-structured interviews were conducted individually with 15 early adolescent females (12-14 years old) and 20 middle and late adolescent females (15-18 years old). Co-participants in the mid to late adolescent cohort provided retrospective accounts of their early adolescent experiences along with insight on how their experiences shaped their current participation. The girls' voices were brought to the forefront through composite vignettes that highlight their physical activity experiences, integrating the words used by the co-participants. Results are discussed in relation to physical activity programming for adolescent females and why a qualitative approach is useful in contributing to gender-specific physical activity programming.

Understanding Physical Activity through the Lived Experiences of Adolescent Girls

Female youths often discontinue participation in sport and physical activity during adolescence, with the most significant decline occurring in early adolescence (Hedstrom & Gould, 2004; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008). The World Health Organization (2008) reported in the Health Behaviour in School Aged Children 2005-2006 Survey that boys are more likely to engage in physical activity for at least 60 minutes per day than girls, with the disparity between them widening with age. Calls have been made to create programs that encourage female youths to participate in regular physical activity at school and in the community (Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2010; Allender, Cowburn, & Foster, 2006; Hedstrom & Gould, 2004; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008). Physical activity programming appears to be a gateway barrier to participation for adolescent girls (Allender et al., 2006; Brett, Heimendinger, Boender, Morin, & Marshall, 2002; Brooks & Magnusson, 2006).

Kinesiology researchers are familiar with how important physical activity is to overall health. However, not everyone attaches the same conceptual meanings to physical activity, and the value structures of adults researching physical activity are not necessarily shared by youth participants (Allender et al., 2006). Abrams, Klass, and Dreyer (2009) discussed the importance of understanding health literacy along a developmental continuum throughout childhood. Youths' conceptualizations of health and physical activity change as they gain experience. Concurrently, a number of social barriers arise that can contribute to adolescent females discontinuing participation in physical activity (e.g., Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2010; Hedstrom & Gould, 2004). One barrier often identified is the lack of gender-relevant programming. Male dominance in sport and physical activity, particularly in the school system, has been argued to marginalize female participants in physical activity contexts (Brooks & Magnusson, 2006; Everhart & Pemberton, 2001). The core characteristics for physical activity (e.g., strength, speed, toughness) are viewed to be male dominated, which may marginalize female success and, subsequently, female involvement (Greenleaf & Collins, 2001; Roper, Fisher, & Wrisberg, 2005).

Qualitative studies have also highlighted the importance of gender-relevant programming concerning females. Whitehead and Biddle (2008) found that less active girls held more stereotypical views in relation to appearance than active girls, considering it impossible to be both sporty and feminine. Similarly, Dwyer et al. (2006) found that girls expressed that looking good for others (i.e., wearing make-up) and being physically active are incompatible. However, they also found that some girls challenged feminine "ideals" and were thus able to renegotiate such gender stereotypes, making it more likely for them to participate in sport. A systematic review of qualitative studies has also echoed the findings on physical activity barriers that are unique to adolescent female participants, such as being self-conscious about showing an unfit body, lacking confidence to execute skills, or appearing too "masculine" (Allender et al., 2006).

While the above research has shed a great deal of light on adolescent females' physical activity conceptions and/or experiences, both Allender et al's (2006) review and Whitehead and Biddle's (2008) study focused solely on youths living in the United Kingdom. Dwyer et al.'s (2006) study, while focused on female youths in Canada, employed a "structured approach" in their qualitative study (e.g., participants in focus groups were asked questions driven solely by the interests and perspectives of the researchers). To extend our knowledge base from a qualitative-research perspective, more studies are needed--and not just studies where questions are derived solely from researchers' interests. Thus, a qualitative approach emphasizing participant-driven data collection and analysis is fitting to learn more about the views held by adolescent girls about physical activity. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (Smith & Osborn, 2004) focuses on exploring and understanding the personal and social world of people based on their own experiences, rather than trying to create an objective record of the phenomena. Using open-ended questions and discussion statements allows for a more flexible interview where participants are able to express their experiences without having to respond in a predetermined manner.

This article seeks to extend previous qualitative research on adolescent female physical activity via an interpretive phenomenological approach, providing readers with a better understanding of how girls conceptualize physical activity during early adolescence, further centralizing the voices of the co-participants through vignettes. While more will be said later about the uniqueness and contributions of a vignette approach in physical activity research, the composite vignettes were developed to depict a mix of participants' voices in a narrative for each emergent theme (Ely, Vinz, Downing, & Anzul, 1997; Spalding & Phillips, 2007). Early adolescent girls (ages 12 to 14) discussed current experiences regarding physical activity and healthy living while middle and late adolescent girls (ages 15 to 18) discussed retrospective accounts of physical activity and healthy living from early adolescence. The results are presented through a thematic content analysis along with composite vignettes.


To glean the views of adolescent girls on physical activity participation it is important to develop a contextually relevant approach that will work with girls ranging in age from 12 to 18 years old. Ryba (2008) proposed hermeneutic phenomenology as a viable method to examine the experiences of children in sport. The main criticism against the use of phenomenological traditions with children is whether children are able to interpret and articulate their experiences. Ryba suggested that phenomenology is a viable approach because children actively interpret and organize their experiences into meaningful patterns and construct their social reality based on previous experiences. To gain an in-depth understanding of the experiences of female youths, interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA; Smith, 2004) was chosen for this study. Through IPA, focus is placed on exploring how participants make sense of their personal and social worlds through the meanings that particular experiences hold (Smith & Osborn, 2008).


Interpretative phenomenological analysis emphasizes the researcher's role as an integral component of the research process from development through analysis and dissemination (Smith, 2004). The term "Co-participants" is used to reflect the reciprocal relationship between the researcher and the girls who contributed to the research project through participation in the youth panel, interviews, and focus groups (Lather, 1991). Using the term "co-participants" acknowledges the female youths as the experts of their own experiences and situates the research as a dialectic process between the participants and the researcher. Two cohorts of students were recruited to participate in the study, consisting of 15 co-participants in the early adolescent cohort, and 20 co-participants from middle and late adolescence. As early adolescent girls were the focus of the project, recruitment for the early adolescent cohort reached the upper boundary in number of participants as recommended by Smith and Osborn (2004) while the mid-to-late adolescent cohort required equal representation across the wider age span. Purposive sampling was used to select co-participants based on reported activity level and grade (grades 7 to 12) to ensure a balanced representation of non-active and active co-participants from each cohort. The girls self-reported the average amount of physical activity they engaged in each week. Within the early adolescent cohort four girls reported being physically active less than five hours per week, seven girls reported being active five to 10 hours per week, and four girls reported being active more than 10 hours per week. Similarly, within the mid-to-late cohort six girls reported being physically active less than five hours per week, nine girls reported being active five to 10 hours per week, and five girls reported being active more than 10 hours per week. Students interested in participating in the research project completed a questionnaire indicating their current physical activity level. The early adolescent cohort was recruited from grades 7 and 8 while the mid-to-late adolescent cohort was composed of girls in grades 9 through 12.

Female Youth Panel

A female youth panel was formed to assist throughout the research project. The panel was composed of one girl each from early, middle, and late adolescence not participating in the interviews. The panel members were met with individually due to challenges in the coordination of their schedules. The members assisted with selecting appropriate terminology for questions, suggesting interview procedures, and providing feedback throughout the subsequent analysis. In terms of suggested recruitment strategies, the members of the female youth panel (especially those who did not consider themselves to be physically active) suggested that they would be more likely to participate in the study if their teacher was involved in recruitment. Subsequently, teachers were contacted to assist with student recruitment from classrooms rather than using recruitment posters. During the development of interview questions and discussion statements the female youth panel members paraphrased each question and statement to ensure mutual understanding of the intended meaning. The coding process was enhanced by the panel helping in the development of coding terms. The panel members were given a selection of meaning units (i.e., discrete quotations, each encapsulating a single idea; Tesch, 1990) and were asked to provide a coding term for each meaning unit. Each member then explained the rationale used for selecting the code in order to help the lead investigator with continuing the coding process independently. The final coding was then discussed with members from the panel, who indicated if any meaning units did not fit with the code they were given and suggested where the meaning units should be placed.

Data Collection

Individual Interviews. Within IPA, the interview strategy is to encourage co-participants to speak about the phenomena with minimal interference from the researcher (Smith & Osborn, 2008). Thus, rather than asking predetermined questions about the phenomenon proposed by the researcher, semi-structured, open-ended questions and conversational statements (e.g., "Tell me more about ...") were used. Each participant engaged in at least one interview and one focus group. The open-ended interview comprised 8 potential topics, averaged 45 minutes in duration, and took place at each participant's school, in a location of their choice. Emergent interview topics included describing physical activity and health, current thoughts about physical activity, and any additional information the co-participants felt was important in relation to the overarching conversation. During the interviews, each participant was asked follow-up questions to facilitate the expansion of ideas and mutual understanding. Patton's (2002) technique of probing through follow-up questions (i.e., detail probes, elaboration probes, clarification probes, contrasting probes) was employed to gain a mutual understanding between the participants and the lead researcher during interviews. The first four co-participants from the early adolescent cohort were invited back for follow-up interviews to deepen their conversations. The follow-ups allowed the lead author to seek further clarification and elaboration from the initial co-participants based on knowledge gained from later interviews.

Focus Groups. A total of seven focus groups lasting approximately one hour each were held after the completion of the individual interviews. The focus groups allowed the first author to verify trends in the data and seek elaboration in the latter part of the project. Each focus group began with a brief presentation based on the results handout developed by the lead author and the female youth panel. The results consisted of a flow chart of the identified themes along with example quotes relating to the listed theme. During the focus groups, co-participants assisted in re-classifying themes and correcting terminology. For example, an original subtheme under healthy living was physical inactivity; however, through focus-group discussions girls decided they would describe the sub-theme as trying to avoid laziness rather than being physically inactive. The sub-theme was confirmed in subsequent focus groups, discussed with members of the expert youth panel, and consequently changed in the coding process.

Data Analysis

The digitally audio taped interviews and focus groups were transcribed verbatim and a flexible analysis was utilized. Data analysis began with the first case and continued until saturation was reached (Patton, 2002). Interview transcripts were analyzed in a cyclical process with earlier interviews and analyses informing later interviews. In this project the female youth panel was encouraged to identify relevant themes and subthemes during individual meetings with the lead author. Key words were adopted directly from the transcripts and used to code data that described a single meaning within the interview (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2008). As themes were developed, coded data supporting the emerging themes were borrowed from the transcripts and organized by theme. The final themes and subthemes, verified by the female youth panel and co-participants, are presented with the corresponding number of phrases supporting each theme/subtheme (see Table 1). To further supplement this thematic analysis, the coded data was developed into brief narratives, denoted as composite vignettes.
Table 1 Early and Mid-to-Late Adolescent Perceptions
of Physical Activity

Themes Subthemes Early Adolescence Mid-to-Late MUs
 Meaning Units Adolescence
 Meaning Units

Physical Activity

Moving Around 9/3 (12) 22/9 (31) 43

Playing Sports 20/12 (32) 13/10 (23 55

Active Participation 8/2 (10) 7/13 (20) 30

Being Fit 12/4 (16) 13/8 (21) 37

Avoiding Laziness 7/1 (8) 5/5 (10) 18

Healthy Living

Being Active 5/3 (8) 5/9 (14) 27

Eating Habits 2/0 (2) 9/7 (16) 18

Maintaining or 6/0 (6) 2/7 (9) 15
Changing Looks

Preventing Illness 1/0 (1) 2/5 (7) 8

Family Influences 1/1 (2) 2/5 (7) 9

Avoiding Laziness 3/0 (3) 2/4 (6) 9

Personal Mentality 0/2 (2) 2/1 (3) 5

Note: The meaning units in each category are presented
interview sum/focus group sum (cohort sum)

Composite Vignettes

Vignettes were developed as a means of presenting the data in narrative sketches, using the first-person voice of the co-participants (Ely et al., 1997; Spalding & Phillips, 2007). The advantage of this strategy is that it enabled the co-participants to come forward and share their experiences in their own voice. Within the sport and physical activity domain, the use of vignettes to illustrate experiences of physical activity engagement has begun to surface. For example, Dubuc, Schinke, Eys, and Zaichkowsky (2010) employed composite vignettes to present the burnout experiences and psychological recovery processes of adolescent female gymnasts. In addition, Blodgett, Schinke, Smith, Peltier, and Corbiere (2011) have used vignettes in the form of short co-authored narratives that feature empowerment with marginalized populations. These vignette studies share with the present study the importance of centralizing the voices of participants often overlooked and silenced within sport science research. Accordingly, a composite vignette resulting in four vignettes was crafted for both main themes (i.e., healthy living, physical activity), as explained by the early adolescent and mid-to-late adolescent participants. The composite vignette format was used to blend the co-participants' voices into a single sketch (Ely et al., 1997; Spalding & Phillips, 2007). To maintain the co-participants' voices, phrases were first borrowed from the data analysis. In cases where multiple youths used similar phrases to explain a reflection, the researcher collapsed the overlapping phrases into a single statement. The members of the female youth panel then met with the lead researcher to re-organize the phrases into a narrative skeleton that made chronological sense. Then the researcher completed the vignettes by writing around the co-participants' phrases (i.e., by adding in connecting words) to make sure that ideas flowed logically and the text was fully developed. Finally, the vignettes were discussed with the female youth panel to enhance authenticity.


Since it is understood that multiple realities exist within phenomenology, the use of Cho and Trent's (2006) criteria for trustworthiness suits the need to respect the multiple perspectives within this project. These criteria are discussed next.

Transactional Validity. Transactional validity was integrated as a medium to ensure the co-participants constructions of reality. In qualitative research, transactional validity is used by researchers to achieve a higher level of accuracy and consensus for the interactive process that occurs between the research, the researched, and the data. For this project, the interview schedule was designed with open-ended topics and conversational statements, which allowed for follow-up questions to establish mutual understanding between participant and researcher. Transcripts and themes were then discussed with the female youth panel to get input, and focus groups were held to facilitate the analysis of data. The overarching intent was to centralize the voices of the co-participants and the female youth panel throughout the project.

Transformational Validity. Within the exogenous pursuits of this study, Cho and Trent (2006) defined the process leading toward social change through the research as transformational validity. Transformational validity was employed as a means of emphasizing what is being achieved through the research and of determining whether it facilitates social justice. Through the research process co-participants had an opportunity to inform future programming decisions as the results of the study were made available to community organizations and schools providing youth physical activity programming. Lather (1991) highlighted the importance of employing catalytic validity (see also Brown & Tandon, 1978; Reason & Rowan, 1981) to focus and energize co-participants toward understanding their reality, thus leading to social change. Throughout the interviews the girls had an opportunity to think about their choices in regard to physical activity. For example, when asked why she did not participate in an activity she wanted to try, one girl responded, "I don't know why I've never gone. I'm going to do that, I'm going to get around to it." In the focus groups, girls brainstormed ideas to help overcome barriers that prevented participation in physical activity and discussed ways they could be more physically active at home and with friends. During the brainstorming discussions the girls became energized and produced ideas for encouraging girls to be more physically active.

Results: Thematic Analysis Summary

Trends in the co-participants' healthy lifestyle experiences during adolescence are explored through a thematic content analysis with a specific focus on how the girls experience being active (see Table 1). First, girls discussed (a) moving around, (b) playing sports, (c) active participation, (d) being fit, and (e) avoiding laziness, which contributed to the broader theme of physical activity. Consequently, the girls delineated how physical activity or 'being active' contributed to the broader concept of a healthy lifestyle, which also included (a) eating habits, (b) maintaining or changing looks, (c) preventing illness, (d) family influences, (e) avoiding laziness, and (0 personal mentality.

Physical Activity

Participants in the early adolescent cohort mostly described physical activity as participation in sports, and to a lesser extent included experiences involving more general forms of physical activity such as doing exercise or playing with friends. Girls in the mid-to-late adolescent cohort described being physically active as any physical activity that involved moving around, including sport, exercise, and daily living choices (i.e., taking the stairs, walking at lunch time). Reasons given by both cohorts for being physically active included participating in available activities, being fit, and avoiding being lazy or appearing lazy to others.

Healthy Living

In early adolescence the co-participants identified being active and looking good as key components of a healthy lifestyle. While co-participants in the mid-to-late adolescent cohort also identified being active and looking good, they placed a higher emphasis on the role of eating in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Mid-to-late adolescent co-participants identified the end of early adolescence and the beginning of high school as a time when eating habits became the most important aspect of a healthy lifestyle. Girls in both cohorts identified risk of illness, family influence, avoiding laziness, and mentality as other components of healthy living of which they were aware. .

Results: Vignettes

The co-participants discussed ideas of what physical activity meant to them and how it related to the broader concept of healthy living. What follows are the composite vignettes that encapsulate each theme from the perspective of the early adolescent cohort and the retrospective accounts of the mid-to-late adolescents.

Physically Active--Early Adolescence

Early adolescent co-participants discussed how they experienced physical activity in their everyday lives, which most frequently included participation in physical education classes, school breaks, school teams, and to a lesser extent, community programs. The girls referenced sport frequently, especially when describing the ways in which it is possible for early adolescent girls to be physically active. The idea of sport being the primary or only way to be physical active indicates that early adolescent girls hold a narrow view of physical activity:
 Being physically active is anything where you're moving. I think of
 getting in shape and building muscle and trying out for sports. Being
 active in gym class lets people know that you're not lazy. You try to
 keep up with the rest of the class. Keeping up your looks has been
 important this year. If you don't, you will get made fun of by
 classmates. Being a physically active person is not sitting on a
 couch in front of a television like lots of kids do. If someone said
 they were physically active I'd get the idea that they were
 participating in a lot of sports or they were extremely good at one
 sport. I would think that they were in shape and just generally all
 around good at sports. Many people have different opinions about what
 physically active is, some people believe that dance isn't activity
 and some people say it is. If someone said they weren't physically
 active I'd think of someone who is less coordinated and not as in
 shape as someone who is physically active. I would think that they
 probably sit on a couch and watch TV and eat chips.

Physical Activity--Mid-to-Late Adolescence

Girls in mid-to-late adolescence maintained some of their views from early adolescence about what it means to be physically active. However, overall the girls indicated that their knowledge about physical activity broadened in high school. Exposure to new activities in high-school physical education classes opened the door to more options for being physically active. Further, the co-participants indicated that the idea of being physically active was closely tied to the concept of losing weight, rather than overall healthy living practices:
 Some of my ideas of physical activity are still the same as middle
 school. It's still if you're moving and you're doing activities
 instead of just sitting around, then you're being physically active.
 Whether it's just walking around the school, you're still physically
 active versus sitting in a classroom. Being physically active could
 mean doing sports or it could mean working out on your own. I just
 got a tape that shows some yoga poses and I try to do that two times
 a week. It's good because it shows you and I can do it any time. I
 think in grade 7 and 8 it was more about doing sports because younger
 people don't really go to the gym by themselves. I think more about
 being active now because I am aware of my weight. I thought being
 physically active in grade 7 and 8 was still just coming to school
 and going outside at recess. As I have moved through high school it
 has been more about being healthy. For me being physically fit back
 then was just being skinny, even if you didn't do anything. Now it's
 different, being physically active is three things: it's my health,
 how fit I am, and also my mentality.

Healthy Living--Early Adolescence

When discussing physical activity, few co-participants discussed the broader concept of a healthy lifestyle. However, when asked about the aspects that contribute to a healthy lifestyle most participants from both cohorts included the presence or absence of physical activity as a component of an overall healthy lifestyle. The early adolescent cohort focused on concepts of unhealthy behavior rather than on describing behaviors that contribute to healthy living:
 Being physically active keeps you healthy because if you don't do any
 activities then you'll just get lazier. Keeping up your looks is
 important because that's what people see but I don't think being thin
 is a good indication of health at all because skinny people could be
 anorexic or they could have a high metabolism. For large sized people
 it could be genetic that they gain weight, it could be an enormous
 difference. You could have a person who is bigger than a skinnier
 person, but the bigger person could work out an hour every day and
 the skinny person has still done nothing. I think who you are
 surrounded by determines your maximum health. I think to be fully
 healthy you have to be not only fit but you have to be happy too.

Healthy Living--Mid-to-Late Adolescence

Within the mid-to-late adolescent cohort there was still a focus on what it means to be unhealthy, although girls described aspects that they believed contributed to a healthy lifestyle. Co-participants in the mid-to-late adolescent cohort also shared personal experiences or experiences of friends and family members that informed their knowledge about healthy lifestyles:
 Being healthy is just eating right and knowing when to kind of go for
 the sugary stuff--being able to control it. I'm a healthy eater. I
 think eating healthy has a lot to do with exercising, as well. In my
 opinion being healthy would be eating the best foods that are good
 for you, but I guess not all people have that option. Health comes
 into play if girls are not eating healthy and not being active. That
 is where weight gain becomes a problem. A lot of girls get worried in
 middle school and then even on into high school. Looks are very
 important; if you're overweight it's a problem and people are like
 "Oh, well, you're fat." Then you get more self conscious and
 discouraged. Basically if you're not physically active you're going
 down the wrong road to being unhealthy. What got me going was my
 grandfather dying from diabetes--I didn't want to have diabetes.
 Being healthy is being able to walk up a flight of stairs without
 bursting to catch your breath or the doctor saying you're healthy. If
 you're healthy, then you're fit and you might live longer and better.
 Before being healthy was just things you were forced to do like
 what your parents fed you or what you have to do and now I just
 do things I like to do.


The World Health Organization (2008) reported that Canadian girls are consistently less active than boys between the ages of 11 and 15 years old and that girls have a greater reduction in participation levels during the aforementioned age span (also see Hedstrom & Gould, 2004). One of the many barriers to participation in physical activity is the availability of relevant physical activity programs designed for early adolescent girls (see Brett et al., 2002; Brooks & Magnusson, 2006). Adolescent co-participants in this project discussed how they viewed physical activity within the context of their own life, and through their experiences.

A primary focus among both cohorts, when discussing healthy lifestyles, revolved around concepts of body image, specifically issues regarding weight management and appearing fit to others. Although girls were aware that healthy people could be all shapes and sizes, the girls focused on how others would perceive them based on how they presented themselves. This is consistent with Cumming and Thogersen-Ntoumani's (2011) finding that self-presentation explains the majority of variance in exercise behavior among adolescent girls. Additional research has consistently identified appearance-related self-presentation concerns as barriers to females' activity participation, with girls being self-conscious about their weight and appearance in front of peers and/or being physically active in public (Sabiston, Sedgwick, Crocker, Kowalski, & Mack, 2007; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008; Zabinksi, Saelens, Stein, Hayden-Wade, & Wiley, 2003).

Further in-line with the above literature, the females in this study were not solely focused on presenting a positive self image, but also focused on avoiding negative self-presentation. Girls in the early adolescent cohort also placed more emphasis on avoiding negative health and social outcomes rather than on participating in physical activity for the benefits. These findings may relate to the fact that messages aimed at youths often detail the negative effects of inactivity. Additionally, media sources (e.g., fitness magazines, fitness advertisements) often invoke stereotypical ideals concerning gender (Berry & Howe, 2004; Eskes, Duncan, & Miller, 1998; Markula, 2001), emphasizing an ideal body that is thin (and an overweight body as something to be avoided) when promoting exercise for females. Given that socio-cultural messages tend to position physical activity as primarily a weight-loss and body shaping tool, not surprisingly the girls indicated that although weight was not necessarily a good indicator of a person's overall health, it was still a primary reason for wanting to be physically active. Girls in the early adolescent cohort focused on 'being active' and 'maintaining or changing looks' when discussing health. Consistent with Rich (2010) and other research that has found weight to be a leading motivator for exercise (Ingledew & Sullivan, 2002; Saxena, Borzekowski, & Rickert, 2002), the girls expressed being active and being healthy in a narrow discourse that focused on being active as a way to achieve goals such as weight loss or looking good.

However, girls in the mid-to-late adolescent cohort discussed a broader view of health than the early adolescent girls and referenced multiple factors of health more frequently, including 'being active,' eating habits,' 'maintaining or changing looks,' preventing illness,' 'family influences,' avoiding laziness,' and 'personal mentality.' The broadening of girls' views of health supports the idea that health literacy expands as youths mature and have more experiences on which to base their views (Abrams et al., 2009). Understanding the specific aspects of health that girls consider important throughout adolescence may help to address the barrier of creating relevant programming that matches the girls' needs and conceptions of activity described by Brett et al. (2002) and Brooks and Magnusson (2006). However, as further suggested by the results from previous research and the current study, such programming will need to address self presentation and the physical identity concerns of adolescent females in ways that do not emphasize and/or reproduce culturally narrow feminine ideals, body shape, and weight loss (Brooks & Magnusson, 2006; Dwyer et al., 2006; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008).

Social barriers have been cited by researchers as reasons for discontinuing physical activity participation (see Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2010; Hedstrom & Gould, 2004; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008). Within the current study, co-participants explained that they had limited exposure to a variety of physical activities, and most commonly referred to sports when discussing physical activity. Although the girls considered sports a primary way to be physically active throughout adolescence, mid-to-late adolescent girls also described other forms of physical activity, such as yoga, aerobics, and going for walks. Girls in the mid-to-late adolescent cohort indicated that they had discovered new ways to be physically active from trying new activities in high school physical education classes and with friends. The narratives provided by the girls also affirmed Everhart and Pemberton's (2001) findings that sport is emphasized more than general physical activity. In such instances, it seems that girls may become discouraged from participating in physical activity if they do not perceive themselves as able to meet the standards for succeeding in sport contexts. Exposure to a wide range of physical activities prior to adolescence, when the focus shifts to being good at an activity, can help girls discover activities they enjoy and wish to pursue during adolescence (Brooks & Magnusson, 2006; Clark, Spence & Holt, 2011).

Upon reading the composite vignettes it is clear mat although adolescent female youths discuss concepts that are familiar to researchers, they do not subscribe to the same technical jargon that is frequently used to discuss physical activity within scholarly literature (e.g., cardiovascular health, nutrition, body image). This project enhanced the relevance of coding by using indigenous coding that focuses on applying appropriate terminology (i.e., relevant to the population) to the themes (see Patton, 2002). Composite vignettes are useful in discussing the research findings with adolescent girls because they encompass the experiences of the co-participants in language that is accessible and meaningful to them (see Spalding, 2004). In order to increase adherence to physical activity programs and encourage physical activity as a regular part of daily living for adolescent girls it is imperative to understand the world from the perspective of an adolescent girl. Using an IPA with youths is a valuable tool for accessing the terminology youths use to construct concepts of physical activity (Clark et al., 2011; Ryba, 2008). The creation of composite vignettes enables the reader to experience the voice of the co-participants by limiting the researchers' interpretation of the data. The composite vignettes have been shared with parents, teachers, and program coordinators to help facilitate a better understanding of how girls conceptualize physical activity in their daily life. In delivering programs it is crucial to focus on the language used to discuss physical activity so that it is relevant to the population and encourages participation in physical activity in its broadest sense (i.e., daily lifestyle choices, exercise and sport). Further, girls indicated that they were not aware of many physical activity options until high school, so programming needs to focus on exposing girls to broader possibilities for physical activity before they enter high school. Girls require the knowledge and guidance to start and maintain physical activity habits as a part of their daily lifestyle rather than situating physical activity as something only for 'athletes.' As new programming ideas develop, it is necessary to monitor how girls continue to conceptualize their experiences with physical activity and to contextualize such experiences within the broader socio-cultural context (e.g., school programming/opportunities, gender and physical activity stereotypes, social/peer comparisons, media promotion of physical activity for females as a weight loss and body shaping tool; Allender et al., 2006; Brooks & Magnusson, 2006; Clark et al., 2011; Dwyer et at., 2006; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008).


There were several important limitations in this project. First, sport and physical activity opportunities may vary greatly between rural and urban regions within and across countries due to access to facilities and participant base. The current study was limited to female youths residing in the urban centre of the first author's city of residence. Second, employing open-ended, semi-structured interviews allowed co-participants to guide the discussion in directions and through topic matter they deemed important. However, within the aforementioned method of data collection early adolescent co-participants frequently struggled to describe events from the past and had a hard time describing potential future events. It would seem that the flexibility of semi-structured interviews can be a double-edged sword by centralizing the co-participants' views while also serving as a challenging method, especially for early adolescents. A possible solution is to balance interviews with other emerging research methodologies, including moving stories (i.e. interviewing while moving with the participants throughout their day's activities), through which researchers and readers might gain a much deeper sense of how the targeted population truly views their engagement in physical activity.


Creating awareness for how early adolescent girls view physical activity can foster a dialogue that is meaningful for the intended population. In this project, co-participants described similar ideas about what constituted physical activity, and also what it means to be physically active. To discuss concepts of physical activity and health with early adolescent girls it is important to understand the meaning that the intended cohort assigns to the parameters of physical activity and health. By understanding how girls conceptualize physical activity and health in their daily life, health promoters can more effectively begin to co-create programs with the intended population in mind, in order to engage early adolescent girls and support their development.


The authors would like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Sport Participation Research Initiative for their generous support of the study (SSHRC-DF#752-2009-1491, SSHRC-SPRI#862-2009-0005). In addition, this project would not have been possible without the support of the Rainbow District School Board and the Sudbury Catholic District School Board.


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Hope E. Yungblut, Robert J. Schinke and Kerry R. McGannon, Laurentian University Mark A. Eys, Wilfrid Laurier University


Robert J. Schinke, EdD, CSPA, CRC School of Kinetics 935 Ramsey Lake Rd. Laurentian University Sudbury, Ontario, Canada P3E 2C6


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Title Annotation:Original Research Article
Author:Yungblut, Hope E.; Schinke, Robert J.; McGannon, Kerry R.; Eys, Mark A.
Publication:Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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