R. Korhonen, E. Rauff.

Seattle University, Seattle Washington

First-year university students have an increased risk of elevated stress due to changes in their environment, routines, and responsibilities. While research provides evidence for the benefits of physical activity (PA) on stress, it is less clear how stress may affect PA behavior, motives, and support for PA. PURPOSE: This study examined differences in PA behavior, PA motives, and social support for PA based on first year university students’ stress levels. METHODS: First year university students (N = 441, 77.3% female 21.9% male) completed validated measures of their stress, PA behavior, PA motives, and social support for PA during the fall quarters from 2018-2021. Students were categorized into low, moderate, and high-stress groups based on their Perceived Stress Scale scores. A MANCOVA controlling for sex with Bonferroni correction was conducted for all variables. A Kruskal-Wallis test was used for items that violated homogeneity. RESULTS: A significant multivariate effect was observed for students’ perceived stress (WL = 0.87, F (12, 864) = 5.1, p < 0.001) such that students with low levels of stress reported significantly lower appearance/weight management (AWM) based PA motives (M=27.1, SD=6.9) as compared to their peers with high stress (M=30.9, SD=6.5). Moreover, students with moderate stress levels (M=28.4, SD=7.0) also reported significantly lower AWM motives than those with high stress. Kruskal-Wallis tests examined differences between stress groups and PA behavior revealing that students with low stress levels engaged in significantly more minutes of moderate-to-vigorous PA (M =379.2 SD=390.6) than students with moderate stress (M = 268.2 SD=279.3) and high stress (M =332.6 SD=473.9). No significant differences were observed across stress groups for social support or any other PA motives. CONCLUSION: These findings suggest that undergraduate students with higher stress levels engaged in less PA than those with lower stress which may support prior evidence suggesting that greater levels of PA are associated with lower levels of stress. Since AWM was the only PA motivator with significant differences between groups, it is also possible that the motivation to use exercise to manage one’s appearance may contribute to the elevated stress levels observed in first-year undergraduate students.

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