A number of factors determine the level of people’s physical activity across their lifetimes, researchers agree. These may include how competent they feel in performing physical activities, their weight, their environment and their activity history. But another, perhaps more important, component that has not been adequately studied is their actual motor skill set, say BGSU kinesiologists Drs. David Stodden and Stephen Langendorfer, who are working along with Dr. Mary Ann Roberton, professor emeritus, all of the School of Human Movement, Sport and Leisure Studies.
“We believe there’s an underlying relationship between motor skill competence, fitness and physical activity,” said Stodden. “We are trying to understand how all these factors are related using a more holistic theoretical model, and then we may be able to intervene to help people be more physically fit and active.”
As the nation experiences an alarming increase in the number of people who are dangerously overweight, with all the attendant health problems, “the emphasis has been on physical activity and fitness,” Stodden said. “But we think people also need a degree of skillfulness that allows them to participate.” Children’s obesity rates are increasing even more than adults’, he added, and even to play, “you need to be coordinated.”
The three researchers, along with Shakira Adams, a first-year graduate student in developmental kinesiology from Findlay, and collaborator Dr. Jacqueline Goodway of Ohio State University, another specialist in motor development, are convinced that it is not simply how competent one feels, but how competent one actually is that makes the crucial difference in willingness to participate in physical activity. Their study, “A Developmental Perspective on the Role of Motor Skill Competence in Physical Activity: An Emergent Relationship” is one of the first to look at these factors across the lifespan and to attempt to measure motor skills more accurately.
“In early childhood, children begin to learn a group of motor skills known as fundamental motor skills,” they write. These include locomotor skills, or moving one’s body through space, and include running, skipping, galloping, hopping, sliding and leaping; and object-control skills such as throwing, catching, bouncing, kicking, striking and rolling.
“For adults deciding to participate in any physical activity, it’s similar to the New Year’s resolution,” Langendorfer said. “You tend to get a high degree of attrition over time. We know from research that it takes about 16 weeks for people to develop an exercise habit. People often don’t persist in continuing to exercise because they haven’t reached the point where their body’s physiology can meet the demands of the activity—and this is probably especially true if one is not particularly skillful in movement. Most of us seek out the kinds of activity we choose because we feel comfortable and competent at performing them.
“The more skilled you are at an activity, the more energy efficient and effective you are and the easier and more pleasurable it is to do. There’s also the psychological boost of knowing you’re doing it well,” he added.
An increasing correlation
The research group predicts that the link between well-developed, efficient motor skills and continued physical activity—and in turn physical fitness—will strengthen over the lifespan. They have hypothesized a “positive spiral of engagement,” in which actual motor competence is reflected in individuals’ positive perceptions of their motor competence, leading to more participation in physical activity, which will lessen their risk of obesity and increase their likelihood of maintaining a healthy weight. They also predict the potential for the opposite effect, a negative spiral of disengagement when children have not acquired adequate levels of skillfulness.
To test their hypothesis, they are conducting a series of assessments to gather empirical data. So far, they have completed hundreds of evaluations of people of various age groups using simple measures of skill in long jumping, throwing and kicking. These all require a certain amount of power, coordination and skill, Stodden said.
“We don’t expect a strong relationship in younger elementary schoolchildren,” Stodden said. “They equate effort with success, and as parents we always praise them for whatever they do. But when they reach the age of about 7-9, they are objective enough to see when others are more skillful, and they may begin to withdraw from activity if they understand they are not as skilled as their peers.”
Pilot data on 253 children ages 5-14 seem to bear out the researchers’ predictions. As reported in a paper accepted for publication by Quest, a theoretical journal for kinesiologists and others in the field of physical fitness and activity, the children’s scores did not significantly predict physical fitness for 5- to 8-year-olds, but throwing and jumping did predict significant fitness variance in those ages 9-14.
“We’re hoping our work and our theoretical model will inspire debate, and that other researchers will continue to test the model,” Langendorfer said.
A new approach
This developmental approach is novel, the researchers say, and draws heavily upon Roberton’s groundbreaking developmental sequence research. Though there have been numerous previous studies of people’s activity levels, their self-perceptions, and even of their motor skills, these have not been done from a developmental perspective, according to the BGSU group. Measuring a child’s proficiency at throwing against an expert’s (an approach known as the “error model”) perhaps does not yield the most revealing picture, they note.
Measuring these factors in varying age groups has already yielded some important results, they report in another paper accepted for publication. Data suggest up to 79 percent of health-related physical fitness in 18-25-year-old adults can be predicted by how well individuals jump, throw and kick.
While women have been shown to be slightly less fit and have less advanced levels of motor skills across the lifespan, the relationship between their skills and their fitness is the same as men’s, the researchers have found so far.
And to the question of the “natural athlete,” Stodden and Langendorfer both agree the research tends to refute that idea as a myth. “Some people may have more genetic potential, but they still must practice to develop their skills,” Stodden said.
Currently, the group is seeking more people ages 35-55 for their study. “We’re looking at how fit you are now and how much skill you have,” Stodden said. In exchange for being assessed, participants will receive a free fitness and motor skill assessment. Those interested in participating in the study may contact Shakira Adams at email@example.com to schedule an appointment.
The work has been supported by a $30,000, three-year grant from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education as well as a research incentive grant from Sponsored Programs and Research and another from the College of Education and Human Development. The team is also in the running for funding from the National Institutes of Health.
“If this relationship is truly there, our next step will be to intervene,” Stodden said, “to see whether we can promote higher levels of activity and fitness by improving motor skills. This certainly could make the case for strong, daily physical education programs that promote skillfulness and fitness in all our schools.”