Evidence from the Australian Longitudinal Study of Women's Health suggests that mothers of young children have lower levels of physical activity (PA) than women of similar age without children.
The aim of the ProActive Mums project was to determine the relative efficacy of two strategies designed to increase the proportion of mothers of young children who are meeting current PA guidelines, utilising child care centres (CCCs) as the setting for recruitment.
The project used a randomised (after stratification to ensure even representation of CCCs from differing socio-economic areas) design incorporating repeated data collection from women in three groups, each consisting of 7 childcare centres (CCCs). Baseline surveys were completed by 554 mothers, with follow-up data collection immediately post-Intervention (8 weeks after baseline) and again 5 months later. Women from CCCs in Group 1 (control) received only the surveys throughout the duration of the project. Women from CCCs in Group 2 (information only) were given a print intervention, and women from CCCs in Group 3 were (in addition to being given the same print intervention as women from CCCs in Group 2) invited to to contribute to the development of, and participate in, strategies for the promotion of PA among mothers of young children. The two intervention strategies were extensively evaluated through a series of surveys and interviews.
The print intervention prescribed for women from CCCs in Group 2 and Group 3 consisted of an 8-page booklet containing motivational messages and information about physical activity. Women from CCCs in Group 3 were also invited to attend meetings at their CCC to identify strategies for increasing their PA. Contacts were made with key stakeholders in the community, including managers of sporting and recreation facilities, childcare service providers, and local councils. A wide range of strategies was developed during the intervention phase of the project, which specifically focused on the need to increase partner support and self-efficacy (or the confidence to be physically active).
The mean age of participants was 33 (+ 4.8) years, and the mean number of children per family unit was 2.2 (± 0.9). At baseline, fewer than half the women were meeting current guidelines for adequate PA for health benefit, and there were no significant differences between groups in the proportion of women who were adequately active for health benefit. Women in Group 3 were significantly more likely to meet the guidelines at post-intervention follow-up than controls [OR = 1.71 (1.05-2.77)] after controlling for age and PA at baseline. There was no significant effect of the print intervention alone on meeting guidelines at post-intervention follow-up compared with controls, after controlling for age and PA at baseline [OR = 1.15 (0.70-1.89)]. Changes in Partner Support (PS) and Self Efficacy (SE) significantly predicted meeting current PA guidelines at post-intervention follow-up after controlling for baseline PA [∆ PS: OR = 2.29 (1.46-3.58); ∆ SE: OR = 1.86 (1.17- 2.94)]. The intervention effect in Group 3 was not maintained at long-term follow-up.
The findings indicate that a community participation approach that facilitates increased partner support and self-efficacy can be effective in increasing PA among mothers of young children. Changes in physical activity were found to be mediated by changes in partner support and self-efficacy for physical activity, suggesting that the intervention successfully targeted the individual characteristics it intended to, and that these variables do play an important role in increasing physical activity among women with young children. It is clear that further work needs to be done to explore methods of translating the short-term intervention effect shown in this study into long-term changes in PA behaviour. This study also provided insight into measurement issues in PA research and raised questions about self-report measures of PA and perceived constraints to being physically active.
The results from post-study qualitative interviews suggest that many women at this life-stage experience time constraints which, when accompanied by a lack of partner support and financial constraints, make leisure-time PA virtually impossible for many women. Future strategies might focus on targeting this population immediately prior to this life-stage in an attempt to encourage habitual physical activity before women have children. Increasing PA in this population should also address the entire family unit, and consider the way leisure-time is negotiated among the adults within a household. Social change and increased awareness of the range of benefits of PA for women with children are additional strategies to be considered.