Promoting Physical Activity among International Students in Higher Education a Peer-Education Approach: This Program Helps Foreign Students Adapt through Physical Activity

Article excerpt

In 2010 there were 690,923 international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities (Institute of International Education, 2010)--a record high. No doubt multiple economic, personal, and social factors have contributed to this, including targeted recruitment efforts on the part of U.S. colleges and universities and the United States having the largest and most diverse higher education system in the world (Lowell, Bump, & Martin, 2007).

When international students come to the United States to study, the institutions that recruit them serve in a quasi, in loco parentis role (Sweeton & Davis, 2004), helping the students adapt and adjust to their new surroundings (e.g., interpreting and understanding social mores and educational expectations, acquiring and developing language skills). Toward this end, institutions offer various means of support, including international program offices; special curricular offerings; sponsorship of organizations, clubs, or events; home-stay programs with host families during holiday and break periods; and counseling services.

While some of these services are enduring, others are more transitional in nature, focused on helping the international students successfully adjust to their new surroundings and circumstances. One neglected area is health services. Beyond checking and maintaining immunization records for international students, very little direct attention is given to preventive health services or targeted health promotion efforts, such as the promotion of physical activity participation.

Physical Activity Participation Among International Students

International students' physical activity participation levels tend to be lower than those of domestic students. For example, multiethnic studies have found that students from Asian and African countries have the lowest levels of physical activity participation, while Caucasian students are the most physically active (Kenya, Brodsky, Divale, Allegrante, & Fullilove, 2003; Suminski, Petosa, Utter, & Zhang, 2002). Yoh, Yang, and Gordon (2008) found that Asian female college students averaged only 1.3 hours of physical activity per week. This level of physical activity was substantially less than the amount reported by female college students from North America (3.3 hours), Europe (2.3 hours), South America (2.2 hours), and Africa (2.1 hours). Though limited, the available evidence suggests that international students studying in the United States are, on average, insufficiently active and in need of physical activity assistance.


Multiple factors contribute to the lower levels of physical activity participation observed among international students (Frisby, 2011). First, international students are generally disconnected from their social support network (i.e., family, friends, and familiar social surroundings), which may result in feelings of social isolation, loneliness, and confusion. Second, international students usually receive a study visa to the United States because of their academic aptitude and interest in enhancing their English language skills. Third, depending on the country of origin, their knowledge of the benefits of physical activity may be relatively low (Lewis, Szabo, Weiner, McCall, & Piterman, 1997). Fourth, students coming from developing countries may have had limited or no access to the type and variety of exercise facilities and physical education instruction that are commonly available in the United States (Cardinal et at., 2009), therefore their movement knowledge and skills may be underdeveloped or their level of movement self-confidence may be low. Fifth, gender-role stereotypes regarding physical activity and sports, especially vigorous ones that may be deemed masculine in nature, persist in some countries and result in barriers to physical activity participation for women.


Given this context, the creation of a suitable social network in which international students are able to interact with domestic students may provide a good opportunity for promoting physical activity among international students, and it may further benefit domestic students in other ways. …