Is there a way to motivate first-year university students to be physically active as a means to enhance their post-secondary experience and foster positive mental health?
That's the question driving a new study currently underway at McMaster University and led by Matthew Kwan, assistant professor and associate director of the Infant and Child Health Lab in the Department of Family Medicine.
The 12-week Physical Literacy intervention for first-year University Students (PLUS) Study is focused on understanding how to prevent the decline in physical activity associated with the transition from high school to university and its impact on mental health.
"Research shows that this transition period is associated with major declines in physical activity, with students being more physically active in high school than in their first year of university," said Kwan, who is also an associate member of McMaster's Department of Kinesiology.
"We are trying to figure out ways to stimulate activity as they experience this significant transition in their lives. Being physically active is critically important to their overall well-being."
Physical literacy is defined as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, understanding and knowledge to maintain physical activity at an individually appropriate level throughout life.
The PLUS Study consists of organized weekly activities that specifically target those aspects of physical literacy.
Participants engage in one-hour sessions of traditional and non-traditional activities each week, such as rock climbing, sitting volleyball, inner tube water polo, and human board games, with what turned out to be an especially popular and competitive human version of Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Detailed data is being collected of the behavioural, fitness, motivational and mental health outcomes of participants before, during and after the study.
"The engagement has been good and the turnout is very high for the sessions, so we are happy with the response and we are collecting a lot of data," said Kwan.
"We want to see if this intervention of organized activities increases students' confidence, motivates them to participate in physical activity, connects them with their peers and helps them learn more about what recreation opportunities were available in and around campus. We will also be asking students 12 weeks after the study ends whether they were able to maintain their activity level."
The study participants are a group of first-year McMaster students living on campus in residence. McMaster Residence Life is a key partner for the PLUS Study, helping with student recruitment, booking venues and resources on campus, and lending staff to assist in initial baseline testing.
"When Dr. Kwan approached us to be involved with the study we were excited about the potential impact it could have on first-year students," said Sean Beaudette, manager of student leadership and learning with McMaster's Residence Life Office.
"The findings of this study have the potential to shape the Residence Life program for this year and in the future. Additionally, in Residence Life we are always looking for innovative and effective ways to improve the student experience, and contributing to the academic mission of the university is one of our key principles."
Four McMaster undergraduate students in their fourth year are assisting Kwan with the study. Each student is focused on their own related research as part of their undergraduate theses.
Cierra Healey, Selvia Margharious and Ryanne Perinpanayaagm are in the Honours Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology program, while Natalie Paolucci is working on her Bachelor of Health Sciences degree.
Healey's research is focused on the impact of the physical literacy intervention on the mental health of the participants. She said the transition to university is a time when academic and social environments change simultaneously, which can result in psychological distress, and worsened self-confidence and self-esteem.
Organized physical activity can play an important role in helping students manage stress in a healthy and positive way, she said, which is something she has already seen in the participants.
"I have watched them laugh and smile as they take part in different activities and have seen them encouraging and motivating each other to take risks and do the best that they can," said Healey.
"I have even noticed positive changes in myself. I think that this program is going to have a very positive outcome on the students and I definitely wish that I had the opportunity to take part in an initiative like this during my transition to university."
Ryan Ta, a first-year McMaster social sciences student, said his participation in the study ensures he makes time for exercise in his busy schedule.
"I wanted to take part in the study to challenge myself and go beyond my comfort zone, as well as make a commitment to physical activity," said Ta prior to a game of inner tube water polo at McMaster's Ivor Wynne Centre pool.
"One of the biggest misconceptions in the transition between high school and university is that you have more time. The work adds up and it is hard to fit in fitness, which is important to my health."
The study results are expected to be available in summer 2018.
Natalie Paolucci, Cierra Healey, Matthew Kwan, Selvia Margharious and Ryanne Perinpanayaagm are leading the PLUS Study at McMaster University. PHOTO BY JD HOWELL