Proposed Strategies to Reduce Students' Body-Related Concerns in Physical Education: Reducing Students' Social Physique Anxiety May Help to Increase Their Participation

Article excerpt

Research has shown that participation in physical education decreases from the beginning of high school to the end of high school (from 91% to 34%; Delva, Johnston, & O'Malley, 2007). This is unfortunate since physical education can provide the means for increasing physical activity during adolescence and throughout life, as well as enhancing physical fitness (Fairclough & Stratton, 2005). Given that adolescence is a critical period for the development of healthy attitudes and behaviors, it is important that physical educators provide a program that promotes enjoyable lifelong physical activity within a socially, emotionally, and psychologically safe environment.

Adolescent girls and boys experience many changes in their physical appearance and body shape (Williams & Currie, 2000). Adolescence is also an integral period for social development, such that youth become increasingly aware of and interested in forming social bonds and peer relationships (Hartup, 1993; Patrick et al., 1999). As a result of the physical and social changes experienced during this developmental stage, adolescents become increasingly self-conscious about their appearance (Smolak, 2004) and many become anxious that others are negatively evaluating their physique and/or appearance (Leary & Kowalski, 1995). When adolescents experience this form of anxiety, they are said to experience social physique anxiety (SPA; Hart, Leary, & Rejeski, 1989). For the purpose of this paper, these experiences will be referred to as body-related concerns.

Although physical activity may provide a means for adolescents to improve their physical appearance and subsequently lessen body-related concerns, the fear of being negatively evaluated by others can act as a barrier to physical activity (Hausenblas, Brewer, & Van Raalte, 2004). Moreover, environments where people are constantly looked at and evaluated may intensify the likelihood of experiencing body-related concerns. One such environment is the physical education class, because students are often required to be "on display," as evidenced by the following quote: "I hate softball ... I didn't like batting ... because ... everyone is waiting for you ... and everyone is watching you" (Carlson, 1995, p. 470). In addition, students may experience frequent body-related concerns during physical education classes because of the imposed attire, the chance for comparison with others (both in terms of physique as well as performance), the pressure to show competency, and the presence of opposite-sex peers (Carlson, 1995; Olafson, 2006; Sabiston, Sedgwick, Crocker, Kowalski, & Mack, 2007). If students experience body-related concerns because of these aspects, they may avoid the situations that foster them by withdrawing from participation in physical education during adolescence. This point is illustrated in the following quote from a 13-year-old female:

  I know that one of my friends kept trying to get out of it
  [physical education class] because she got a really tight
  shirt--it wasn't really comfortable to have boys staring at her
  chest in her tight shirt ... When we have to wear, like, specific
  shirts and shorts, we think that other people are talking about us,
  and someone saying, whispering something, but it's just like a joke
  or something like that. ... (Unpublished data from Sabiston et al.,
  2007)

Therefore, it is important to identify situations that may increase body-related concerns during physical education and to develop strategies to help reduce these experiences within this context. The purpose of this article is to provide physical educators with goals and specific strategies to decrease the potential for body-related concerns among students as a way to promote participation in physical education. These suggestions are based on theoretical perspectives, current research, and practice. A summary of these strategies is presented in table 1. …