Researcher Studies Why It Can Be Hard to Get Moving

Feature Story
Deborah Rohm Young, PhD, MBA, at her standup desk
Deborah Rohm Young, PhD, MBA

Deborah Rohm Young, PhD, MBA, is director of Behavioral Research, Kaiser Permanente Department of Research & Evaluation. Her research focuses on various aspects of physical activity, including the associations between sedentary time and cardiovascular health, and the behaviors associated with maintaining physical activity into adulthood.

Her most recent research, which looked at the access to parks and young women’s physical activity, was published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

We know that physical activity is important to overall health, yet we don’t all exercise. Why is that?

Physical activity is a complex behavior determined by a person’s background and preferences, social and cultural environments, and where he or she lives, works, or goes to school.

This complexity makes it easier for some people to become or stay physically active than it does for others. It also means that what works for one person to be active may not resonate with another.

What does your most recently published research tell us about health and physical activity?

Physical activity continues to decline for girls ages 14 (middle-school age) to 23 years. Those with higher mother’s education, lower body mass index, more behavioral strategies to be active, more social support to be active, and those living near parks had higher physical activity.

Teaching and reinforcing these strategies — such as how to set goals and reward oneself and how to find friends or family members to support their physical activity — may be important. City planners should also make sure they leave room for plenty of parks and green space.

Your research stretches into many areas of physical activity and health. What are some of your other findings?

In the past 5 to 10 years, we’ve learned that being physically active and being sedentary are not a continuum on the same scale. And that health benefits of being highly active can diminish if a person is also highly sedentary.

This is a hard message to understand: Going for a 30-minute brisk walk every day and then sitting at a desk or in front of the TV for the rest of the day carries health risks. While there are not yet U.S. guidelines for how much sitting is too much, we have learned the greatest health benefits are associated with being physically active combined with not spending too much time being sedentary.

What sparked your interest in research you’re doing now?

I worked in an exercise physiology laboratory right out of college and enjoyed learning about how regular physical activity benefits the cardiovascular system. For these studies we recruited people who were either very active or very inactive.

Deborah Rohm Young, PhD, MBA, walking up the stairs at work with colleagues

Deborah at work, taking the stairs with colleagues.

I became interested in “who are these people who are very physically active” and “why/how do they maintain this behavior”? Trying to address these questions led me to post-graduate studies and a continued pursuit of finding answers. We’ve learned how complex the behavior is and how many factors coincide with each other to make it easier or harder to become or stay active.

Do you incorporate what you’ve learned into your own life?

Of course! I’m fortunate to live in a neighborhood that makes it easy to be active. I try to get out for a 3- to 4-mile run in the mornings. It feels good to be outside in the fresh air and hear the birds chirping. I’ve learned that having goals is important — it can be too easy to say, “oh, maybe I’ll go tomorrow” if I don’t have firm goals. I’m not so good at the self-rewarding part, though!