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The potential downside of physical activity interventions

A previous section set out the research finding that physical activity can improve self-esteem. However, some researchers have noted that physical activity also has the capacity to lower self-esteem if it leads people to feel self-critical of their poor performance or embarrassed by failure. (1) This is more likely to occur as a result of physical activity being delivered in the form of competitive sports where there are winners and losers.

Conventional forms of sport and PE can also increase social exclusion of certain, already excluded, groups such as ethnic minorities or disabled youngsters decided to opt out or are not able to participate. Girls can often feel alienated from competitive sports and involving boys and girls often requires different approaches. (See ‘good practice’ section.)

Other potentially harmful aspects of pursuing physical activity programmes can be that they can lead to an obsession with weight and to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. However, research shows that that this is much more likely to be a risk factor for elite female athletes rather than the general population. Other difficulties can arise if young people are put under undue pressure to succeed at competitive sports.

It is also generally accepted that forcing young people to take part in activities they do not enjoy may put them off physical activity and so not help them establish the foundations of an active lifestyle.


1. Fox, K. R. (2000) Self-esteem, self-perceptions and exercise. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 31, 228-240.

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