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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Why some do but most don't. Barriers and enablers to engaging low-income groups in physical activity programmes: a mixed methods study

Janet Withall*, Russell Jago and Kenneth R Fox

Author Affiliations

Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, Bristol, BS8 1TZ, UK

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:507  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-507

Published: 28 June 2011

Abstract

Background

The beneficial effect of physical activity for the prevention of a range of chronic diseases is widely acknowledged. These chronic conditions are most pronounced in economically disadvantaged groups where physical activity levels are consistently lower, yet this group is particularly difficult to recruit and retain in physical activity programmes. This study examined the perceptions of participants, non-participants, and exercise leaders in a low-income area regarding barriers, motives, and enabling factors for organised physical activity with a view to improving recruitment and retention.

Methods

A mixed methods research approach was adopted to guide data collection and analysis. A survey, incorporating the Motivation for Physical Activity Measure - Revised (MPAM-R), was used to assess the motivations of 152 physical activity session participants in a highly deprived suburban neighbourhood. The MPAM-R data were analysed using t tests, analyses of variance to estimate age, body mass index, and activity mode differences and Pearson's correlation coefficient to address associations. Semi-structured interviews were also conducted with 33 local residents who did not participate in activity sessions and with 14 activity session leaders. All interviews were audio-taped, transcribed verbatim and analyzed using an inductive thematic approach.

Results

Participants reported cost, childcare, lack of time and low awareness as barriers to joining activity classes. The need for support, confidence and competence in order to take up activity was widely expressed, particularly among women. Once people are active, high levels of social interaction, interest and enjoyment are associated with improved levels of retention, with different types of physical activity scoring differently on these factors.

Conclusions

This study suggests that some factors such as cost, the fear of 'walking in alone', accessibility of facilities, and appropriate communication strategies may be of particular importance to increasing recruitment of low income groups. Interventions targeting this group should consider low cost sessions and childcare; activities popular with the target group and associated with good recruitment and retention; sessions held at accessible times; a focus on fun and socialising; well-researched and designed communications strategies; targeting of friendship groups; clearly branded beginners' sessions, and the potential of social marketing as strategies. The evidence presented here suggests that the current UK government approach designed to 'enable and guide people's choices' may not be sufficient if low-income groups are to be effectively supported in changing their health behaviours.