Psychological and Environmental Contributors to Incidental Physical Activity

Author: Stacey Oliver

Oliver, Stacey, 2019 Psychological and Environmental Contributors to Incidental Physical Activity, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Recent empirical research and theoretical models have acknowledged that both environmental and psychological characteristics contribute to physical activity behaviour. However, relatively little research has examined how they relate specifically to incidental physical activity. Incidental physical activity consists of unstructured activities that occur as part of daily living, and therefore occurs outside of formal exercise settings. Informed by socio-ecological models, self-determination theory and dual process models, the primary aim of this research was to investigate whether environmental and psychological characteristics are associated with incidental physical activity as they are for leisure time physical activity. A secondary aim was to investigate the inter-relationships between these factors with a view to inform future incidental physical activity interventions and strategies to enhance well-being. These two aims were addressed in a series of correlational and experimental studies.

The thesis consists of five empirical studies. Studies 1, 2 and 3 addressed the first aim of the thesis by investigating the inter-relationships between environmental and psychological factors, and how they relate specifically to incidental physical activity. Specifically, Study 1 investigated the contribution of motivational factors to incidental physical activity engagement, in combination with intentions and perceived environmental factors. The findings suggest that walkable neighbourhoods, motivation and intentions together play an important role in guiding incidental physical activity levels, as well as leisure time physical activity levels. However, the exact nature of the inter-relationships differed such that neighbourhood walkability guides incidental physical activity levels for individuals who have the motivation, but lack the intention to be physically active, whereas neighbourhood walkability indirectly contributes to leisure time physical activity by contributing to intentions and motivation. Study 2 investigated how contextual motivation (i.e., motivation differs depending on the circumstances surrounding behaviour engagement) and dispositional motivation (i.e., an individual’s trait-like motivation) predict incidental physical activity, compared to leisure time physical activity (i.e., exercise). The findings showed that exercise was positively associated with both contextual and dispositional motivation while incidental physical activity was positively associated only with contextual motivation. Thus findings indicate that exercise and incidental physical activity are associated with different motivational properties. Study 3 examined the combined contributions of automatic processing (attentional, approach and implicit attitudes) and motivation to incidental physical activity engagement. It was found that autonomous motivation (i.e., when a behaviour is valued, interesting, satisfying and engaged in out of choice) and certain implicit processes (i.e., implicit attitudes and approach-avoid biases) together contributed to incidental physical activity engagement.

The second aim of the thesis was addressed in Studies 4 and 5. Study 4 investigated whether subtly modifying the environment could implicitly guide individuals to engage in incidental physical activity by altering their motivation, while Study 5 investigated the contribution of motivational, environmental and incidental physical activity engagement to well-being. Specifically, Study 4 tested how a subtle change in the environment affects contextual motivation and subsequent engagement in walking for active travel, a form of incidental physical activity. The findings showed that although the presence of a motivational sign did not increase walking engagement, autonomous motivation for active travel predicted walking engagement. In addition, the presence of an autonomously-oriented prompt was associated with higher levels of autonomous motivation for active transportation. The findings suggest that subtly altering the environment can benefit motivation. Finally, Study 5 investigated the combined contribution of incidental physical activity, motivation and the built environment (specifically neighbourhood satisfaction) to subjective well-being. The relationship between autonomous motivation and well-being was moderated by incidental physical activity levels, and neighbourhood satisfaction mediated this relationship. Specifically, the positive contribution of autonomous motivation to well-being was dependent on whether individuals engaged in higher levels of incidental physical activity and whether they were satisfied with their neighbourhoods. Findings indicate that motivation, incidental physical activity and neighbourhood satisfaction together play an important role in increasing overall well-being.

Overall, the findings contribute to emerging research investigating the inter-relationships between psychological and environmental contributors to incidental physical activity. The research presented makes a unique contribution to the literature in that it identifies important inter-relationships between motivational components, implicit processes and environmental factors, and their contribution to incidental physical activity engagement. Additionally, motivational conditions under which incidental physical activity benefits psychological well-being are identified. The results also contribute to the theoretical understanding of incidental physical activity behaviour. In particular, the findings support specific constructs from self-determination theory, socio-ecological and dual process models, and encourage the adoption of multiple theories in order to understand incidental physical activity behaviour. The findings from the current thesis have the potential to inform the development of interventions to increase such incidental physical activity behaviour, and thus benefit wellbeing.

Keywords: incidental physical activity, neighbourhood walkability, motivation, socio-ecological models, self-determination theory, dual process models, well-being

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2019
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Eva Kemps