The health benefits of regular physical activity (PA) in children have been well documented, including reduced body fat, enhanced physical fitness and bone health, more favorable cardiovascular risk profiles, and decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression [1
]. Current PA guidelines recommend children aged 5–17 years to participate in at least 60 min of moderate-to vigorous-intensity PA (MVPA) on a daily basis [2
]. Despite considerable evidence supporting the protective effects of PA, physical inactivity remains widespread [3
]. A national survey using accelerometers revealed that Chinese children and youth spent an average of 28.3 min per day in MVPA. Only 9.4% of boys and 1.9% of girls met the recommendation of 60 min/day of MVPA [4
]. Similarly, in Hong Kong, only 8.3% of children aged 7–12 years engaged in the recommended PA levels [5
Interventions that target strong and consistent modifiable correlates of behavior should be more effective in changing behavior [6
]. Given the low levels of PA in China, understanding the association between correlates and PA could inform the development of more efficacious interventions. Psychological factors have been extensively identified as an important category in reviews concerning correlates of PA in children and adolescents [7
]. In the PA domain, self-efficacy beliefs are emphasized as a situation-specific of self-confidence that people have to engage in PA [9
]. Self-efficacy is positively associated with exercise adherence [11
]. A few studies have examined the positive relationship between self-efficacy and PA in Chinese pediatric populations in mainland China [12
], Taiwan [14
], and Hong Kong [16
]. However, only self-reported PA data were collected in these studies.
Self-determination theory (SDT) [17
] is another appealing theoretical framework for understanding how motivational factors may relate to PA and has been widely employed. SDT posits that motivation helps individuals initiate and maintain behavior. SDT offers a motivational sequence ranging from low to high levels of self-regulation underpinning PA, known as amotivation (i.e., lack of intentionality and personal causation), external regulation (i.e., external locus of initiation, e.g., for gaining reward or avoiding punishment), introjected regulation (i.e., involving internalized rules or demands), identified regulation (i.e., realizing the value of behavior and accepting the regulatory process), and intrinsic motivation (i.e., inherent satisfaction in doing the behaviors) [18
]. Based on these different motivational regulations, SDT distinguishes the autonomous and controlled motivations. Intrinsic motivation and identified regulation are considered autonomous forms of motivation because they reflect a sense of personal volition and originate from an internal perceived locus of causality. Alternatively, introjected and external regulations are considered controlled motivation to reflect external demands, originating from an external perceived locus of causality [19
SDT provides valuable insight into how to foster increments in autonomous motivation, indicating that more self-determined forms of motivation lead to optimal functioning and well-being [20
]. A review of forty-six studies of the association between the motivations and PA in children and adolescents indicated that autonomous motivation had a moderate positive association with PA (ρ
= 0.27 to 0.38), whereas controlled forms of motivation had weaker negative associations with PA (ρ
= −0.11 to −0.21) [21
]. Most of these existing studies, however, were derived from western populations. One study among Chinese students found differences in PA levels between high and low self-determined groups [22
]. Two PA motivation studies were conducted in mainland China and Taiwan [23
], but were specifically conducted in physical education contexts. There is a paucity of research on PA motivation among underserved Chinese children in free-living conditions. Considering the obvious western vs. Chinese cultural differences (e.g., heavy homework load and emphatic stress on academic performance among the Chinese), perceived pressure on school work might influence Chinese children’s intentions and decisions to be physically active [25
]. Thus, studies of Chinese children’s motivational correlates of daily PA are imperative.
Furthermore, preference for the behavior, a component of behavioral choice theory [26
], has been applied to explain PA behavioral choice. Preference for PA was a significant predictor of engagement in PA in a large community-based sample of adults [27
]. Clustering of activity preferences was identified in primary school children [28
], with higher preference or liking for sedentary behavior negatively associated with time spent in a free-choice situation [29
]. However, few studies have assessed the association between children’s PA preference with active behaviors.
This study aims to assess the associations among several psychological factors (i.e., self-efficacy, preference, motivation) and PA in Chinese children. We hypothesized that self-efficacy, preference, and autonomous motivation would be positively associated with PA, whereas, controlled motivations would be in negative association with PA (Figure 1
). Moreover, given inherent limitations and bias in self-reported measures of PA [30
], research is needed using more objective measure, which is paramount to our attempts to better explore the correlates of actual PA behaviors. In the current study, children’s PA was measured with both an accelerometer and self-reported recall questionnaire to assess the possible differences in these relationships.
This study is among the first to investigate the importance of psychological correlates in understanding PA of Chinese children using both accelerometry and self-reported estimates, and to demonstrate that the associations varied depending on the different PA measures. The findings of correlation analyses showed that PA self-efficacy, preference, autonomous and controlled motivations were all positively related to PAQ-C score and objective MVPA. The correlations with PAQ-C were all substantially stronger than those with accelerometry. In a hierarchical regression model, age, PA self-efficacy, preferences, and autonomous motivation were positively associated with self-reported PA after controlling for gender, BMI, and SocD. However, age and PA preference did not contribute significantly in the hierarchical model predicting objectively assessed MVPA which was positively associated with PA self-efficacy and autonomous motivation, and negatively associated with female gender.
Self-efficacy has been one of the most important correlates of youth PA [43
]. The available research on gender differences in self-efficacy for PA in children and adolescents is somewhat inconsistent among Chinese children. Among Taiwanese adolescents, girls reported lower PA self-efficacy than boys [15
], whereas, no gender difference was detected in this study or by another study among Hong Kong Chinese children [16
]. In the current study, PAQ-C and objective MVPA were both positively associated with self-efficacy in the hierarchical regression analyses. Previous studies have indicated that time spent in PA was predicted by self-efficacy in Chinese children [13
]. Positive association between self-efficacy and PA was also found in Hong Kong children [16
], Taiwanese adolescents [14
], and South Korean children [44
]. Similar to findings among Caucasian children [45
], self-efficacy appears to be an important correlate of PA among Asian cultures.
Higher autonomous motivation (i.e., identified and intrinsic) should be a more consistent predictor of reported behavior than higher externally oriented motivations (i.e., controlled motivations consisting of extrinsic and introjected relegations) [18
]. Participants in the current study reported higher levels of autonomous motivation and lower levels of controlled motivation. Congruent with previous studies using SDT [46
], autonomous motivation was positively associated with greater PA for both PAQ-C and objectively-assessed MVPA. This finding suggests that children’s PA levels increase as their belief that PA is inherently enjoyable and pleasurable and the values they place on PA increases. Theoretically, controlled regulation should be negatively associated with PA [20
]. The empirical study of Owen et al. [21
] demonstrated the negative association between the controlled regulation and exercise behavior. However, departed from the hypothesis, positive association between controlled motivation and PA was observed in the current study. Introjected regulation, underpinning controlled motivation, was positively related to both self-reported and objectively assessed PA, which were also found in the previous studies [46
]. Introjected regulation is motivation from an internalized, pressuring voice or demand. The positive association between introjected regulation and PA might reflect children’s concern for their physique, e.g., the motivation to engage in PA partly to satisfy self-needs and pressure to have a desired body shape and physical appearance [49
]. Additionally, introjected regulation appears to have been associated with PA in the short-term, but not the longer term [50
]. Due to the limitation of cross-sectional design in this study, the potentially long-term unassociation between introjected regulation and PA cannot be assessed; this implies the need for a persistent emphasis on identifying the value and motivating the enjoyment of the behavior.
This is one of only a few studies that investigated PA preference, which may be key in developing effective PA-promoting and weight-control strategies for children [52
]. Preferences for moderate PA accounted for 2.9% of the variance in moderate PA and 16.3% of the variance in vigorous PA among adults [27
]. In the current study, hierarchical regression revealed that PA preference was a positive correlate of PAQ-C, but not for objectively assessed MVPA. This discrepancy calls for more research on the association between PA preferences and PA level among Chinese children. PA preference was generally measured with a PA checklist [52
]. The findings of this study also indicated that regardless of how people perceived they prefer the activities, they may not behave in accordance with their preferences, which may be due to several impending factors, for example, unforeseen barriers, unavailable activity and environmental influences. Knowledge of the types of activities in which children would prefer to participate is of value in planning communication campaigns. The further explicit association between PA preference and PA would be useful to a variety of stakeholders to develop the intervention programs to understand how certain features of PA programs (e.g., intensity and type of PA) can be better tailored to meet the PA interests of Chinese children.
This study examined PA all day, including during school time and after school times, and leisure time PA rather than PA in physical education or other specific settings. Children in this study reported a slightly higher MVPA level (43.1 ± 12.7 min) than Chinese children in another study (28.3 ± 17.7 min) due to the adoption of different cut-points for MVPA (≥2296 CPM in the current study vs. ≥2800 CPM in the other study) [4
]. Considering the PA level assessed by accelerometer was sensitive to the cutoff points defining activity intensity, the results from studies using different cutoff points would therefore not be comparable. However, for the PA behaviors across gender groups, consistent with previous literature, this study demonstrated boys engaged in significantly more objective MVPA than girls [54
]. In the current study, age was significantly associated with PAQ-C score, but not with objectively assessed PA. In a national sample of American children in grades 4 through 12, a regression analysis of correlates of PA explained more variance in PA in the oldest than the youngest groups [55
], suggesting reliability and validity of self-reports likely increase with age [56
A notable strength of the current study was the use of both accelerometer and self-reported measures of PA. Although SocD bias was measured and controlled for in the current study, it was associated with neither self-reported nor objectively assessed PA. The correlation coefficients between psychological correlates with PAQ-C were substantially higher than those with objective MVPA. The psychological correlates accounted for 45% of the variance of the PAQ-C score beyond that explained by demographics and SocD, but increased explained variance by only 13% of objectively assessed MVPA. Previous studies demonstrated similar discrepancies in the contribution of determinants with adolescents’ PA using the subjective and objective PA measures [57
]. The difference in level of predictiveness is likely due to self-reported error variance common to the PAQ-C and psychological correlates, but not common to accelerometry. Shared method variance may lead to overestimation of the association [59
Limitations in the present study should be warranted. Firstly, associations investigated were cross-sectional in nature, which precludes casual inferences. Secondly, participants were volunteers, which may have resulted in a “self-selection” bias and thereby limit the generalization. Lastly, although participants’ age, BMI, gender, and SocD were statistically controlled in the analyses, other socio-demographics such as parental education level, household income, peer influences, and parental support may be potential confounders.