Physical Activity and Educational Attainment

It may have seemed like common sense for many of us, but researchers at the University of Kansas have now found a link between different patterns of physical activity during the week for those with higher and lower levels of educational attainment – specifically the different days on which individuals are more likely to be active.

The economic advantages associated with higher education obviously affect an individual’s ability to afford things like gym memberships and healthy food. However, the Kansas study showed that the picture is more complex, with the less educated group exercising at different times during the week compared to the more highly educated group. Although it had previously been assumed that those with lower educational attainment were more likely to work in less sedentary roles than those with graduate desk jobs, the study found that those with a college degree spent more time exercising at the weekend in comparison. The less educated participants were more likely to spend less time exercising at the weekends, possibly due to overall higher levels of physical exhaustion or the perception that their physical jobs did not necessitate any further exercise after a long week at work.

The study used accelerometer data from the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which tracked how many steps the participants took and the level of intensity of the movement. They found that on average those with a college degree spent 8.12 hours exercising at the weekend compared to 7.86 hours for those without a high school degree. Although the latter group were still more active during the week, the study does suggest a more complicated picture than previously thought.

There are further considerations that affect the overall physical health of the individual aside from the number of hours of exercise. For example, those with lower levels of educational attainment may have less time to exercise during the weekends due to second or third jobs, lack of available child care (either from a partner, family members or professional services), fewer local facilities such as gyms, parks or leisure centres, or fewer places to walk nearby due to the neighbourhood environment.

The relationship between educational attainment and economic status cannot be ignored when investigating the reasons behind an individual’s exercise habits.  Several studies have shown the correlation between economic class and physical health, taking into account additional factors such as diet, smoking, and body mass index. A recent investigation into the health inequalities associated with deprivation and social class (Nevill, Donnelly, Shibli, Foster & Murphy, 2014) highlighted that many of the health issues reported by individuals in lower socioeconomic groups can be partly explained by individual behaviour rather than simply living in a more deprived area. However, this individual behaviour was affected by socioeconomic status, with respondents in less deprived areas reporting better levels of health overall.

Additionally, other investigations point to an accumulative positive effect on health for people in more advantaged social positions. One study found that even after socioeconomic status improved, there were lasting effects on an individual’s health: ‘even for employees currently in non-manual positions the risk for less than good SRH (self-rated health) increases with each added year of previous experience within working class’ (Kjellsson, 2013).

So what solutions are there to this problem? Various policies have been actioned over the years in an attempt to close both the education and economic gap, and companies are now buying into the idea that healthier employees make for healthier business. Whether the role itself is sedentary or active, employers can help their staff in a number of ways through a corporate wellness programme. Tax free or discounted bikes for work schemes are available from several organisations. Not only does cycling bring health and fitness benefits, but also saves the employee money that would otherwise be spent on fuel for commuting to and from work (a clear benefit for those on a low income). Providing healthy food in staff canteens and curtailing the availability of less nutritious food is another improvement. To address the different weekly patterns of exercise in individuals, many companies are now encouraging employees to join sports or fitness groups outside of work time (promoting employee teams or offering discounts to local sports facilities in which to practice). Staff wanting to take on bigger challenges might have the opportunities to join in with organisation-wide team-based charity events.

These are just a handful of initiatives that businesses have taken. With the growth in awareness about the underlying reasons for health and fitness issues and the knock on effect to business and society as a whole, there is certain to be an increase in new and imaginative ways of getting the population moving.


  • Kjellsson, S., Accumulated occupational class and self-rated health. Can information on previous experience of class further our understanding of the social gradient in health?. Social Science & Medicine [serial online]. March 15, 2013;81:26-33. Available from CINAHL, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 1, 2014.
  • Krueger, P., Chapman, K., Saint Onge, J., et al. Objective Physical Activity Patterns of U.S. Adults by Educational Status. American Sociological Associations 109th Annual Meeting, 2014.
  • Nevill, A., Donnelly, P., Shibli, S., Foster, C., Murphy, M., Modifiable Behaviours Help to Explain the Inequalities in Perceived Health Associated With Deprivation and Social Class: Evidence From a National Sample. Journal Of Physical Activity & Health [serial online]. February 2014:11(2):339-347. Available from: SPORTDiscus with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 1, 2014.

Photo: Anthony Langley / USAG Humphreys

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