by Heartim Williams EdD, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, ACSM-EP, EIM, CIFT, CET, PAPHS, ACE-CHC, CWP
The socio-ecological model is a widely adopted tool used to understand physical activity behaviors. Introduced by psychologist Bronfenbrenner in the late 1970s, the socio-ecological model proposes that behaviors are influenced by multiple factors, including intrapersonal/ individual, interpersonal, institutional/ organizational, community, and public policy. Understanding the dynamic interplay between these factors allows wellness practitioners to identify potential barriers and opportunities for physical activity engagement.
Intrapersonal/ Individual Level
The center of the socio-ecological model is individual factors, such as biological and demographic characteristics, attitudes, and beliefs towards, in this case, physical activity. Age, weight (Suryadinata et al., 2020), income (Armstrong et al., 2018; SFM et al., 2020), childcare (Ha et al., 2020), and disability status (Smith et al., 2021) are individual factors that can have an influence on behaviors. It’s been reported that there’s an association between socioeconomic status and physical activity engagement. For instance, an individual who falls under the lower end of the socioeconomic scale may find it difficult to engage in physical activity due to a lack of childcare or may not be able to afford to participate in preferred activities one enjoys. As the poverty level decreases, the percentage of adults who are physically active increases (Blackwell et al., 2014). Therefore, depending on the individual and their circumstances, wellness practitioners may need to identify available resources when designing a physical activity prescription for their clients, such as taking advantage of their worksite’s employee assistance programs and community resources (e.g., childcare financial assistance options). Some may have not taken action simply because they aren’t aware of the resources that are available to them.
Seeking support from family, friends, and other social networks is a strategy used to promote physical activity. Individuals who have strong, positive social support may have an advantage in adopting and sustaining a physically active lifestyle over those who do not have such support (Kouvonen et al., 2011; Laird et al., 2018; Mendonca et al., 2014). Wellness practitioners may want to help identify the type of support their clients may need to sustain a physically active lifestyle. Some have excellent social support systems; others may be exposed to negative appraisal support. Educating on how to manage negative feedback may be needed.
Institutional/ Organizational Level
Physical activity behaviors are influenced at institutional and organizational levels (Mulchandani et al., 2019). Given that the average person spends more than eight hours a day at the workplace (United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d.), which is most of their day, it makes it an ideal setting to implement health promotion initiatives. Nearly half of United States workplaces offer some type of wellness program, most including physical activity as an option (Linnan et al., 2019). If offered, wellness practitioners may want to incorporate these wellness initiatives into their client’s physical activity plans, especially if there are benefits for doing so, such as financial advantages. For instance, if an employer provides financial incentives for achieving certain biometric screening values, then it may be sensible to develop a physical activity plan with this goal in mind.
The built environment, culture, and social norms of a community can affect health behaviors. Research suggests that designing an active-friendly environment, such as improving accessibility to parks and green spaces, may help support physical activity engagement (Cohen et al., 2015; Kopcakova et al., 2017; Tcymbal et al., 2020). Consequently, physical inactivity is likely to result when environments fail to provide opportunities for physical activity (Loh et al., 2018). Understanding the environment an individual is exposed to, including potential barriers (e.g., lack of transportation, neighborhood safety) and available, accessible resources (e.g., free access to school gyms after hours), could be helpful when developing a physical activity plan.
Public Policy Level
Public policy, such as through city designs (e.g., policy to reduce cars and increase active modes of transportation), can influence health actions and practices. Gelius and colleagues’ (2020) research suggest infrastructure policies may be effective in promoting physical activity. Understanding community and national policies could be advantageous for wellness practitioners as it could potentially identify areas to support the adoption of a physical activity lifestyle. For instance, some communities adopted car-free streets and have used this space to promote a myriad of activities, including yoga and dance (Tu, 2022). Wellness practitioners could incorporate these opportunities to encourage physical activity among their clients.
Some individuals may lack certain factors and still thrive, while others may not. For instance, not all may require social support to engage in physical activity. Some may refuse to take advantage of their worksite wellness programs due to privacy concerns (Perrault et al., 2020). Because each individual’s circumstance and needs are unique, wellness practitioners may need to gather information from multiple sources to make informed decisions, such as through an individual’s health and lifestyle history form and information gathered through motivational interviewing. Physical activity programs should be individualized and modified based on individual needs.
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