“The profiles that we identified in this analysis should not be regarded as categories that exist everywhere,” Agans said. “They are relevant to the university where we collected the data, but they probably differ somewhat from profiles you would find at other schools. The ability to identify profiles, however, is significant. If universities ask their students what barriers to healthy leisure they are facing, the universities will find commonalities among their own students and be better equipped to help their students overcome those barriers.”
In 2022, according to the American College Health Association, almost 75% of students across the country reported experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress, over 50% experienced loneliness and only 40% met national recommendations for physical activity. For many students, the removal or reduction of barriers could help them develop healthier habits and alleviate some of the emotional anguish, according to Agans.
“Different people face different barriers to healthy leisure, and some of these break down along demographic lines,” Agans said. “People with disabilities may not be able to easily access facilities where leisure activities occur, and women may have safety concerns about exercising outside at night. But college students of all backgrounds face barriers to healthy leisure, and they all need to be empowered to participate. Importantly, not all women have similar needs, nor do all people with disabilities.”
Agans said people’s brains often go straight to demographics like race and gender if diversity is mentioned. She cautioned, however, that the ways that people differ from each other may or may not map onto our assumptions.
Universities will make mistakes if they make assumptions, according to Agans. As an example, she mentioned that a recreation center could offer classes that teach students how to use exercise machines, but religious or cultural mores may prevent some women from participating in a co-ed class. The co-occurrence of barriers — like knowledge of the equipment and religious or cultural modesty — may prevent participation in ways that cannot easily be predicted.
“If we want healthy leisure to be accessible to everyone, we must examine the barriers that groups of people face and understand how those people try to overcome these barriers,” Agans said. “But these groups should not be based on things we already know about the students — like the fact that they are second-year students, international students or women. Instead, groups should be based on shared barriers that people face. If we ask people what prevents them from participating in healthy leisure, and we help them overcome those barriers, then we can help them establish healthy habits that could last a lifetime.”
Collaborators on this project include Julie Stafford Son, professor of recreation, sport and tourism management at the University of Idaho; Sammie Powers, assistant professor of recreation management at George Mason University; Steven Hanna, graduate student in recreation, park and tourism management at Penn State; and Elizabeth Weybright associate professor of human development at Washington State University.
Stafford Son, Powers and Weybright all earned their doctorates in recreation, park and tourism management at Penn State in 2006, 2021 and 2014, respectively. Additionally, Agans served on Powers’ doctoral committee.