Urban Black and White Adolescents' Physical Fitness Status and Perceptions of Exercise

By Desmond, Sharon M.; Price, James H. et al. | Journal of School Health, May 1990 | Go to article overview

Urban Black and White Adolescents' Physical Fitness Status and Perceptions of Exercise


Desmond, Sharon M., Price, James H., Lock, Robyn S., Smith, Daisy, Stewart, Paula W., Journal of School Health


Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are the leading cause of death among both black and white Americans. (1) However, overall morbidity and mortality rates from CVD are higher in the black than in the white population. (2) Some researchers attribute much of the increased CVD mortality to greater prevalence in the black population of several risk factors for heart disease including obesity, (3) cigarette smoking, (4) diabetes, (5) and stress. (6) Regular exercise may help prevent or at least help manage the aforementioned pathophysiologic insults. (7,8)

In a 1979 U.S. survey, blacks were less likely than whites to identify lack of exercise as a cause of heart trouble. (9) Recent studies (10,11) also found support for the idea that blacks are less likely than whites to believe that physical inactivity is an important contributor to CVD. Furthermore, differences between blacks and whites persisted at all levels of education and for both genders. This finding may, in part, explain why blacks are less likely to engage in leisure time physical activity. (12)

The proportion of the U.S. population who are physically active during leisure time relates positively to socioeconomic status, as indicated by income and education. (13) Black Americans are three times more likely to be poor than are whites and are less likely to complete high school and go on for advanced education. (14) As Meyers (15) noted, "... those who are disadvantaged socioeconomically may not have time to exercise, they may not understand the need to be active, or they may not know just what kind of activity is appropriate to decrease risk of heart disease."

This problem may be especially serious for black women. Families headed by single mothers are common in the urban black community. This type of family structure is likely to limit leisure time exercise away from the home since resources for child care also may be limited. Furthermore, black women are more likely to be employed in blue collar jobs which often require some form of physical activity. However, as Meyers" noted, "Black women say they are too exhausted to exercise at the end of the day, or that they don't need to exercise because they've already done so at work." Whatever the reasons, two recent studies confirmed that black women are less likely than white women to engage in physical activity or to be physically fit. (16,17)

The evidence which suggests encouraging appropriate physical activity in childhood and adolescence may promote a carryover effect into adulthood is sparse and inconclusive, though it is beginning to accumulate. (17) A Swedish study of 2,000 young persons of both genders indicated a psychological readiness to participate in fitness activities in later life was strongly influenced by previous adolescent experiences with physical activity. (18) It has been estimated that the current rate of participation in physical activity for young people ages 10 to 17 is 66%. (19) Yet, a recent review of physical activity patterns in North America suggested that the greatest decrease in participation in physical activity occurs in late adolescence where it falls abruptly from 66% to 29% in the 18 to 24 year old age group. (13) This level is well below the Public Health Service 1990 objective of 90% for the aforementioned age group. (20)

Recent reviews on exercise and youth have highlighted how little is known about determinants of exercise in young people. (21,22) It is especially important to identify these determinants in low socioeconomic status adolescents, as they are at higher risk for CVD later in life. Because differences in physical activity level and physical fitness status exist between black and white adults, it may be that, in addition to the effect of socioeconomic status, physical activity is influenced by perceptions of exercise developed during childhood and adolescence.

This study examined urban, inner-city, low socioeconomic black and white adolescents perceptions of exercise using the theoretical structure of the Health Belief Model (HBM). …

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