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Every year, the Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM) holds an annual conference to bring together professionals who strive to use behavioral science to improve people’s quality of life and health. To follow along with this year’s theme, “Leading the Narrative,” I will be presenting my master’s thesis research on role models and their influence on physical activity and dietary behaviors in overweight and obese young adults. I presented initial findings on a partial data set in April-May 2018 at GW’s Research Day presentations and to the Milken Institute School of Public Health, Department of Prevention and Community Health as part of my master’s thesis, but will be presenting the full baseline data set of study participants at the SBM conference in March.

So you may be wondering, why role models?

Role models can profoundly impact an individual’s development and lifelong behaviors. Many health-related behaviors can be adopted as one transitions from adolescence to young adulthood, particularly in the college-aged population. For many students, college is their first experience of independence. This newfound independence means that they have more control over their own lifestyles and behaviors than they have ever had. This transitional period leaves room for many risky behaviors, such as physical inactivity and unhealthy dietary practices, which can ultimately lead to poor lifelong habits and behaviors. Having positive role models in one’s life during this time can provide protective factors for healthy habits and long-lasting behaviors.

Previous research in this area has focused mainly on youth and adolescence. One of the main reasons I chose to do research on this topic is that little research actually exists examining role models for physical activity and diet, particularly among young adults.

I wanted to examine the types of role models young adults identify for physical activity and diet and whether those types of role models differ by demographic characteristics or behavior. My sample included young adults who were enrolled in a healthy body weight randomized controlled trial. In that trial, participants completed assessments before study enrollment, including demographics, anthropometrics, objective physical activity monitoring via accelerometer, online 24-hour dietary recalls, and questionnaires assessing role models for activity and healthy eating.

My analysis showed a few significant findings:

  • The three most prevalent role models reported for healthy eating were friends, family, and entertainers/celebrities. Role models for physical activity were similar, but included friends, family, and athletes/notable athletic figures.
  • Mothers were more likely to be reported as a role model for healthy eating as compared to fathers, with little differences between those who reported mothers and fathers as role models for physical activity.
  • The type of role models reported for healthy eating differed significantly by sex, race, and body mass index (BMI), but not for other demographic factors or by Healthy Eating Index score. The type of role models reported for physical activity did not significantly differ by demographics or objective physical activity.

Reported role models for healthy eatingreported role models for physical activity

This study fills an important gap regarding knowledge of role models among young adults who are overweight and obese. Results confirmed the importance of friends as role models, but families continue to also play an important function as models. Further research on this population is crucial, for the transitional period to college and discovering independence leaves room for many risky behaviors, including physical inactivity and unhealthy diet practices. Therefore, it is important for young adults to develop healthy habits, for many habits may persist across the lifespan.

I am currently using the knowledge gained on this topic in my work at Fors Marsh Group (FMG) with clients such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States Air Force, and AmeriCorps. The public health fields of physical activity, nutrition, and obesity continue to impact much of the research FMG is conducting.   

About the author

Rachel Ingersoll, M.P.H.

Rachel Ingersoll, M.P.H.

Ms. Rachel Ingersoll (MPH) is a public health researcher with over two years of experience in mixed methods research. Rachel has particular experience with veterans and mental health research, risk communication, and obesity prevention. She also has experience with quantitative research, having coordinated recruitment, conducted screening, and collected and analyzed data for an NIH-funded randomized controlled trial.

At FMG, her primary responsibilities include conducting literature reviews and analyses, survey and focus group coordination and development, data analysis, report writing, and a wide variety of other research tasks for the Communication Research team. She has provided qualitative and quantitative support for projects for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), The Department of Defense (DoD), US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), The United States Air Force (USAF), The National Sleep Foundation (NSF), and AmeriCorps NCCC.

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