Internal and Social Assets, Weight-Based Bullying, Sport, and Activity Among Female Adolescents

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Sarah M. Espinoza Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN, USA

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Christie L. Martin School of Nursing, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN, USA

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Marla E. Eisenberg Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN, USA

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Iris W. Borowsky Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN, USA

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Barbara J. McMorris School of Nursing, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN, USA

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Laura Hooper Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN, USA

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Via a school-based survey, we used a developmental assets framework to investigate associations of internal and social characteristics and weight-based bullying with sport and physical activity (PA) among female adolescents with high weight status (n = 4,468; Mage = 14.9 years, SDage = 1.3; body mass index ≥ 95th percentile). Participants reported ≥60 min of PA on approximately 3.0 days (SD = 2.1) in the previous week. Over one-third played organized team sports, averaging 3.5 days (SD = 1.5) per week. Weight-based bullying was common (46%) and unassociated with lower sport and PA. Results from t-tests and chi-squared tests demonstrated that adolescents who played sport (vs. those who did not) had higher internal developmental assets, better perceived health, and stronger perceptions of caring from parents, friends, and other community adults. Similarly, adolescents engaging in more PA reported higher developmental assets. In regression models adjusted for all variables and demographic characteristics, higher internal developmental assets, better perceived health, and stronger perceptions of caring from adults in the community were positively and significantly associated with increased odds of sport participation and higher PA. Findings suggest female adolescents with high weight status have internal and social assets related to their participation in PA and sport, despite experiencing weight-based bullying. Adults (e.g., coaches, parents, and healthcare professionals) should help female adolescents with high weight status participate in sport and PA and build developmental assets. Adults should also recognize the frequent weight-based bullying youth encounter and strive to mitigate it in sport and PA contexts.

Sport and physical activity (PA) can promote well-being for all young people (Pfeiffer & Wierenga, 2019; Weiss, 2016). However, systemic issues limit participation for some populations of youth. Female adolescents are consistently less involved in sport and PA than male adolescents, particularly with increased age, and they face elevated barriers to being active (Rosselli et al., 2020; van Sluijs et al., 2021). Furthermore, female adolescents with high weight status encounter people who endorse harmful attitudes about their sport and PA involvement, including stereotypes of being unfit, unhealthy, and incapable of participating in sport and PA (Greenleaf et al., 2006; Rukavina, 2022). The discrimination they experience can hinder their sport and PA involvement and impede their development of positive self-perceptions (Murray et al., 2022; Rukavina, 2022). Often, this discrimination takes the form of weight-based bullying from their peers (Puhl et al., 2017). Weight-based bullying is one type of bias-based bullying, which is when an aggressor’s hostile behavior is premised on negative beliefs about the person they target (Puhl & Lessard, 2020). Adolescents typically experience weight-based bullying more often than other age groups; concerningly, weight-based bullying associates negatively with adolescents’ overall health and ostracizes them in sport and PA contexts (Puhl et al., 2017; Slater & Tiggemann, 2011). All youth, no matter their sex or weight status, deserve to play sport, be active, and live unaffected by bias.

Despite the bullying they experience, female adolescents with high weight status still participate in sport and PA, though little scholarship has acknowledged they are doing so: even basic estimates of their participation rates are absent from the literature. In one study, Turner et al. (2015) reported that around 15% of female National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey respondents who participated in sport had a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for their age and sex. However, these results focused on the percentage of youth in athletics with high weight status, not the percentage of youth with high weight status involved in sport and PA. Overall, it is unclear how many female adolescents with high weight status participate in sport and PA. The lack of data on their participation rates is problematic, as it leaves negative stereotypes about adolescents’ activity levels and sport and PA abilities unaddressed.

Research gaps extend beyond participation rates: there is a dearth of strengths-based research on psychological, social, and environmental factors that promote sport and PA engagement among female adolescents with high weight status. One well-studied framework for understanding promotive factors that contribute to young people’s health, and which could be used to address these research gaps, is the developmental assets framework (e.g., Benson, 1990; Benson et al., 2011; Scales et al., 2000). The developmental assets framework offers a paradigm for considering attributes that facilitate healthy adolescent development, differentiating it from common theoretical perspectives on adolescent development that overemphasize youths’ risks and negative behaviors (Benson, 1990; Benson et al., 2011; Leffert et al., 1998). The developmental assets paradigm explains that strengths that support adolescents’ healthy development can be internal, such as having a positive sense of one’s identity, good social skills, and satisfaction with one’s health (Benson et al., 2011; Leffert et al., 1998). Strengths can also include social and environmental factors, such as perceived caring from one’s family, friends, school, and community (Benson et al., 2011; Leffert et al., 1998). Indeed, a wealth of research indicates that developmental assets help promote health and well-being among adolescents in general (e.g., Bleck & DeBate, 2016; Sieving et al., 2017; Taliaferro et al., 2020) and for those who experience social stigma (e.g., Gower et al., 2018; Yourell & Doty, 2022). Having more developmental assets associates with higher PA levels and improved psychological health (Bleck & DeBate, 2016), and developmental assets may provide a buffering effect against some of the psychological consequences of being bullied for weight (Christoph et al., 2018). Several studies have shown that developmental assets—particularly internal assets—contribute to and result from sport participation (e.g., Reverdito et al., 2017): one consistent finding among general populations of youth who participate in sport and PA is that they report higher developmental assets than those who do not participate (e.g., Forneris et al., 2015; Reverdito et al., 2017; Scales et al., 2000).

Given that the developmental assets framework emphasizes psychological, social, and environmental strengths that support adolescents’ well-being and has yielded promising findings in other populations, it seems an apt approach for understanding how female adolescents with high weight status stay engaged in sport and PA. However, sport and PA research among youth with high weight status continues to overemphasize weight management, health risks, and psychological maladjustment instead of developmental assets that support their health (Hill, 2017). Though this imbalanced focus on risks is important to address with a developmental assets approach, assumptions should not be made that developmental assets and sport and PA are positively associated in this population. It could be that female adolescents with high weight status have lower developmental assets if they participate in sport and PA, as they are exposed to stigma and harassment in sport and PA contexts (Murray et al., 2022; Puhl et al., 2013; Taylor, 2011). In sum, expanding assets-oriented research with female adolescents with high weight status—while considering the risks posed by the bullying they experience—is an important first step in ensuring high-quality sport and PA for this understudied and under-supported group.

Study Aims

Our study had three aims. The first was to describe rates of organized team sport and PA participation among female adolescents with high weight status, as these are absent from existing research. The second was to compare levels of developmental assets and weight-based bullying between female adolescents who played any sport versus none and between those who participated in more PA versus less, to determine whether associations between assets, bullying, and sport and PA followed patterns established in previous literature with other populations. The third was to test whether differences in developmental assets explained differences in sport and PA participation, accounting for whether female adolescents experienced weight-based bullying from peers, and to test whether relationships held after accounting for multiple variables.

Methods

Data Source

Data for this study came from the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey (MSS), an anonymous, voluntary survey in which all school districts in the state are invited to participate, with the purpose of monitoring young people’s health. The Minnesota Departments of Education, Health, Human Services, and Public Safety collaborate with schools to administer the survey every 3 years, and fifth-, eighth-, ninth-, and eleventh-grade students are eligible to participate. In 2019, 81% of public school districts in the state participated in the MSS. The University of Minnesota’s Institutional Review Board determined this study was not human subjects research due to the use of existing anonymous data.

Participants

Table 1 summarizes our sample’s characteristics. Our sample included students who responded “female” to the question “What is your biological sex?” and responded that they were in the eighth, ninth, or eleventh grade. Because adolescents experience larger age-related declines in sport and PA participation than younger children, and because female adolescents are less involved in sport and PA than male adolescents (van Sluijs et al., 2021), we chose to exclude fifth-grade students and male adolescents from our sample. Furthermore, we restricted our sample to female adolescents with high weight status, specifically participants at or above the 95th body mass index percentile. The MSS Interagency Team determined weight status prior to disseminating the data set based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for body mass index-for-age percentiles for female children and teens, using respondents’ self-reported height and weight (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.).

Table 1

Organized Team Sport Participation, PA, Weight-Based Bullying, and Demographic Characteristics of Female Adolescents With High Weight Status (N = 4,468)

M (SD)
Sport and PA
 Days of organized team sport participation (in typical week, among those who play any)3.5 (1.5)
 Days of PA for ≥60 min/day in past week3.0 (2.1)
 Age (years)14.9 (1.3)
n (%)
Played any days of organized team sports (in typical week)1,532 (34.5)
Met PA guidelines (7 days of PA ≥60 min in past week)292 (6.6)
Did ≥60 min of PA on any days in previous week (vs. no days)3,738 (84.1)
Experienced any weight-based bullying from other students (past 30 days)2,041 (45.8)
Race and ethnicity
 American Indian or Alaskan Native105 (2.4)
 Asian or Asian American196 (4.4)
 Black, African, or African American442 (9.9)
 Hispanic/Latina457 (10.0)
 Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander6 (0.1)
 White2,605 (58.3)
 Multiple races642 (14.4)
Experienced housing and/or food insecuritya626 (17.1)
Diagnosed with physical disability or chronic health condition (e.g., asthma, diabetes)1,023 (23.0)
School location
 7-County Twin Cities Metro Area2,420 (54.2)
 Nonmetropolitan areas2,048 (45.8)

Note. M = mean; PA = physical activity.

aAdolescents had experienced housing insecurity within the past year and/or food insecurity within the past month.

In total, our sample consisted of 4,468 female adolescents with high weight status (Table 1). On average, participants were 14.9 years old. Approximately 2.4% of our full sample identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native; 4.4% as Asian or Asian American; 9.9% as Black, African, or African American; 10.0% as Hispanic/Latina; 14.4% as multiracial; and 58.3% identified as White. Over half (54.2%) of participants attended schools in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area. Seventeen percent had experienced housing and/or food insecurity, and 23.0% reported a physical disability or chronic health condition.

Instrumentation

Organized Team Sport Participation and PA

We assessed team sport participation and PA using single items. Organized team sport participation was assessed with the item, “During a typical week, how often do you participate in sports teams, such as park and rec teams, school teams, in-house teams, or traveling teams?” with response options including “0 days,” “1 day,” “2 days,” “3–4 days,” and “5 or more days.” Self-reported PA was assessed using the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System’s item asking the number of days in the past week that participants were physically active for at least 60 min (Kann et al., 2000). Response options ranged from “0 days” to “7 days.”

Internal and Social Developmental Assets

Internal Developmental Assets

We used two different variables to operationalize internal developmental assets. The first was a 14-item index from the Developmental Assets Profile (Leffert et al., 1998; Search Institute, n.d.). Items assessed participants’ perceptions of positive identity (e.g., “I feel good about myself”) and social competence (e.g., “I build friendships with other people”). All 14 items were scored on a 4-point Likert scale. Due to high correlations and in line with previous research, we averaged scores across all 14 items, with higher scores indicating higher internal assets (Benson et al., 2011; Chatterjee et al., 2018; Search Institute, 2012). Internal consistency was high (α = .90) across items.

Perceived Health

A second internal asset was perceived health, which we measured with a single item from the World Health Organization: “How would you describe your health in general?” followed by five response options: “excellent,” “very good,” “good,” “fair,” and “poor” (de Bruin et al., 1996). Based on previous research, we dichotomized responses as “excellent” and “very good,” indicating better perceived health, and “good,” “fair,” and “poor,” indicating worse perceived health (Barnes et al., 2021; Boardman, 2006; Hiolski et al., 2019).

Social Developmental Assets

To measure social assets, we used four separate one-item indicators reflecting participants’ perceptions of how much others cared for them: “How much do you feel your [parents, friends, teachers/other adults at school, adults in your community] care about you?” Each item was scored using a 5-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “very much.” These items were developed by and have been used extensively in other developmental assets and adolescent health research (Search Institute, n.d.; Smith et al., 2019).

Weight-Based Bullying

To assess weight-based bullying, we used an item that asked, “During the last 30 days, how often have other students harassed or bullied you for your size or weight?” with response options of “never,” “once or twice,” “about once a week,” “several times a week,” and “every day.” In line with previous bullying research, we dichotomized responses into experiencing “no weight-based bullying” versus “any weight-based bullying” (Gower & Borowsky, 2013; Hooper et al., 2021; Puhl et al., 2017).

Demographic and Other Health Variables

In addition to grade in school, we examined demographic and health-related variables: age, race and ethnicity, school location, physical disability or chronic health condition, and housing and/or food insecurity. Race and ethnicity were assessed with a single question asking participants to check all that apply; categories are shown in Table 1. School location was provided by the MSS Interagency team and reflected whether a participant’s school was in the seven-county Twin Cities Metro Area or in nonmetropolitan areas of the state. The presence of physical disability or chronic health condition was assessed with the item: “Do you have any physical disabilities or long-term health problems (such as asthma, cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, or something else)? Long-term means lasting 6 months or more.” Response options were “Yes” and “No.” For housing and/or food insecurity, participants were asked two questions: “During the past 12 months, have you stayed in a shelter, somewhere not intended as a place to live, or someone else’s home because you had no other place to stay?” and “During the last 30 days, have you had to skip meals because your family did not have enough money to buy food?”; scores were dichotomized such that participants who responded “Yes” to either question were scored as experiencing “any housing and/or food insecurity” versus “no housing or food insecurity.”

Data Analysis

We conducted all analyses using RStudio for Mac (2022.02.2 + 485). First, we examined frequencies and descriptive statistics of all variables to understand participant characteristics, rates of team sport and PA participation, and weight-based bullying. For team sport participation, we calculated the percentage of female adolescents with high weight status who played any team sport (vs. none), as well as the average number of days those who were involved in sport played in a typical week. For PA, we calculated the average number of days in the previous week participants did at least 60 min of PA. We also calculated how many participants met (vs. did not meet) public health guidelines of 7 days of at least 60 min of PA in the previous week and how many participants did at least 60 min of PA on any days of the week (vs. zero days).

Next, we used unadjusted analyses to test whether levels of developmental assets and weight-based bullying differed by sport and PA participation in this population. That is, between female adolescents with high weight status who played any sport and those who played none, we used t tests to compare mean values on our 14-item internal developmental assets scale and levels of caring from parents, friends, teachers/other adults at school, and adults in the community. We used chi-square tests to compare perceived health (better vs. worse) and weight-based bullying (any vs. none) between the same groups. Among all participants, we used Pearson correlations to test whether days of PA were significantly associated with internal and social assets and weight-based bullying.

Then, we used inferential analyses to examine relationships between internal and social developmental assets, weight-based bullying, sport, and PA. To explore whether internal and social developmental assets and weight-based bullying were associated with increased odds of participating in sport (any vs. none), we fit a series of logistic regression models with sport participation as our outcome variable of interest. We dichotomized sport participation as “any” versus “none” for these analyses because the response options in our sport item were not evenly spaced (i.e., included “0 days,” “1 day,” “2 days,” “3–4 days,” and “5 or more days”) and because sport participation was not normally distributed (i.e., most participants who reported any participation did so at the two highest response options).

We first tested associations between each asset and bullying variable alone and sport participation (Model 1), then adjusted each model for the control variables of age, school location, physical disability or chronic health condition, and housing and/or food insecurity (Model 2). Following recommendations to use race and ethnicity judiciously in regression models, especially when separately accounting for the effects of socioeconomic status, we did not control for race in our analyses, choosing instead to present race to describe our sample (Neal, 2008; VanderWeele & Robinson, 2014). Our final logistic model (Model 3) simultaneously tested the odds of sport participation as a function of all internal and social developmental assets (i.e., our 14-item internal developmental assets scale, perceived health, caring from parents, friends, teachers/other adults at school, and adults in the community), weight-based bullying, and our control variables. To determine the potential magnitudes of effects and illustrate the uncertainty around our estimates, we calculated 95% confidence intervals. We calculated the pseudo R2 for our final, mutually adjusted logistic model to demonstrate total amount of variance explained in sport participation (Signorell et al., 2022).

Finally, we fit a series of linear regression models to test associations between assets and bullying and self-reported days of PA (Models 4, 5, and 6). We followed similar steps in fitting our models as described above. However, we used days of PA as a continuous, rather than dichotomous, outcome of interest, as PA was a ratio variable and normally distributed. We also added sport participation as a dichotomous independent variable in our PA models, given sport’s associations with self-reported PA (Espinoza et al., 2022; Pfeiffer & Wierenga, 2019). To demonstrate the magnitude of effects in our linear model estimates, we calculated unstandardized (B) and standardized regression (β) coefficients (Ferguson, 2016). We calculated the R-squared for our final, mutually adjusted linear model (Ferguson, 2016).

Missingness was low across variables (i.e., less than 10%), and listwise deletion was used to handle any missing cases in regression models. Given our large sample size and multiple inferential analyses, we used a more conservative p value ≤ .01 to determine statistical significance.

Results

Descriptive Statistics of Sport, PA, Developmental Assets, and Weight-Based Bullying

Of all 4,468 female adolescents with high weight status, 34.5% reported playing any organized team sport during a typical week (Table 1). Of those who played team sports, the mean days of sport participation in a typical week was 3.5 (SD = 1.5). In the full sample, the average number of days on which participants engaged in 60 min or more of PA during the previous week was 3.0 (SD = 2.1). Almost 85% of participants did at least 60 min of PA on one or more days during the previous week, and 6.6% met the guidelines of 7 days of at least 60 min of PA. Among all participants, 45.8% had experienced some weight-based bullying from other students in the past 30 days.

In unadjusted analyses (i.e., t tests and chi-squares), we found that female adolescents with high weight status who played team sports had higher levels of internal and social developmental assets than those who did not play team sports (Table 2). That is, those who played sports reported significantly higher internal developmental assets scores; better perceived health; and stronger perceptions of caring from parents, friends, teachers/other adults at school, and adults in the community. However, these youth experienced the same rates of weight-based bullying as female adolescents who did not play sports. We also found that all the internal and social developmental assets considered had small, positive, and significant correlations with self-reported PA (Table 3); among these unadjusted correlations, weight-based bullying had the weakest association with self-reported PA.

Table 2

Comparison of Internal and Social Developmental Assets and Weight-Based Bullying Among Female Adolescents With High Weight Status, Based on Whether They Participated in Any Organized Team Sport (N = 4,468)

 Among those who play sports

n = 1,532
Among those who do not play sports

n = 2,910
Ranget (df)p
M (SD)M (SD)
Internal developmental assets2.8 (0.6)2.6 (0.6)1–411.2 (2,884.6)<.0001
Sources of perceived caring
 Parents4.4 (0.9)4.2 (1.1)1–57.2 (3,459.4)<.0001
 Friends4.0 (1.0)3.8 (1.1)1–56.2 (3,207.6)<.0001
 Teachers3.2 (1.1)2.9 (1.2)1–58.5 (3,095.3)<.0001
 Adults in the community3.0 (1.3)2.5 (1.2)1–511.7 (3,039.0)<.0001
n (%)n (%)χ2
Excellent or very good perceived health (vs. good, fair, or poor health)1,272 (83.1)1,917 (65.9)120.95 (1)<.0001
Experienced weight-based bullying in past month (vs. none)683 (44.8)1,341 (46.1)0.72 (1).40
Table 3

Pearson Correlation Coefficients Between PA, Internal and Social Developmental Assets, and Weight-Based Bullying Among Female Adolescents With High Weight Status (N = 4,468)

Days of PA (r)95% CIp
Internal developmental assets.16[.13, .19]<.0001
Sources of perceived caring
 Parents.09[.06, .12]<.0001
 Friends.09[.06, .12]<.0001
 Teachers.10[.07, .13]<.0001
 Adults in the community.14[.11, .17]<.0001
Excellent or very good perceived health

(vs. good, fair, or poor health)
.14[.11, .17]<.0001
Experienced weight-based bullying in past month (vs. none).04[.01, .07].007

Note. PA = physical activity; CI = confidence interval.

Logistic Regression Models: Team Sport Participation Among Female Adolescents With High Weight Status

We observed statistically significant associations between developmental assets and sport participation among female adolescents with high weight status in all three models (Table 4; Models 1, 2, and 3). After adjusting for all variables (Model 3, pseudo R2 = .06), higher internal developmental assets were significantly associated with greater odds of participating in any team sport (OR = 1.40, 95% CI [1.20, 1.63], p < .0001). Also in the fully adjusted model, better perceived health had a significant association with sport participation: compared to having worse health, better perceived health was associated with higher odds a participant participated in any team sport (OR = 1.65, 95% CI [1.42, 1.91], p < .0001). Additionally, in Model 3, stronger perceptions of caring from adults in the community were significantly associated with team sport participation (OR = 1.25, 95% CI [1.15, 1.35], p < .0001). Stronger perceptions of caring from parents, friends, and teachers were associated with greater odds of team sport participation in earlier logistic regression models; however, these associations were not significant after accounting for all variables (Model 3). Across all models, weight-based bullying was not significantly associated with sport participation among female adolescents with high weight status.

Table 4

Logistic Regression Models Explaining Organized Team Sport Participation Among Female Adolescents With High Weight Status Based on Developmental Assets and Weight-Based Bullying (N = 4,468)

 Model 1saModel 2sbModel 3c
OR95% CISEpOR95% CISEpOR95% CISEp
Independent variables
 Higher internal developmental assets1.90[1.70, 2.14]0.06<.00011.91[1.70, 2.15]0.06<.00011.40[1.20, 1.63]0.08.0001
 Better perceived health (vs. worse)2.08[1.82, 2.39]0.07<.00012.07[1.81, 2.37]0.07<.00011.65[1.42, 1.92]0.08<.0001
 Higher parent caring1.25[1.17, 1.34]0.03<.00011.23[1.18, 1.34]0.03<.00011.01[0.93, 1.10]0.04.75
 Higher friend caring1.20[1.13, 1.27]0.03<.00011.21[1.14, 1.28]0.03<.00011.00[0.93, 1.09]0.04.83
 Higher teacher caring1.26[1.20, 1.34]0.03< .00011.27[1.20, 1.35]0.03<.00010.93[0.85, 1.02]0.05.13
 Higher adult in the community caring1.34[1.28, 1.41]0.03<.00011.34[1.26, 1.41]0.03<.00011.25[1.15, 1.35]0.04<.0001
 Any weight-based bullying (vs. none)0.94[0.83, 1.07]0.06.390.89[0.78, 1.01]0.07.081.13[0.98, 1.31]0.07.08
Demographic variables
 Older age0.85[0.81, 0.89]0.02<.00010.84[0.80, 0.88]0.02<.00010.86[0.82, 0.91]0.03<.0001
 School location1.20[1.06, 1.36]0.06.0031.22[1.07, 1.38]0.07<.00011.23[1.07, 1.41]0.07.003
 Physical disability or chronic health condition1.05[0.90, 1.21]0.07.551.05[0.90, 1.22]0.08.511.16[0.99, 1.36]0.08.07
 Experienced housing and/or food insecurity1.04[0.68, 1.61]0.22.870.98[0.63, 1.52]0.22.910.85[0.51, 1.45]0.26.54

Note. Internal developmental assets and parent, friend, teacher, and other adult in community caring were treated continuously; perceived health, weight-based bullying (past month), and organized team sport participation were treated dichotomously. School location compares adolescents attending schools in the 7-County Twin Cities Metro to those in Greater Minnesota (reference group). We used a p value of ≤ .01 to determine statistical significance. OR = unadjusted odds ratios; CI = confidence interval.

aModel 1s present OR, 95% CI, SE, and p values for individual independent variables. bModel 2s adjust each independent variable for age, school location, diagnosis of physical disability or chronic health condition, and housing and/or food insecurity. cModel 3 is mutually adjusted for all independent and demographic variables. Cox and Snell pseudo R2 for Model 3 = .06.

Linear Regression Models: PA Among Female Adolescents With High Weight Status

We also identified statistically significant relationships between variables of interest and PA among female adolescents with high weight status (Table 5; R2 for fully adjusted model = .13). Like models investigating sport participation, internal developmental assets were positively and significantly associated with self-report PA (B = 0.35, β = 0.10, p < .0001). The unstandardized estimate suggests a one-unit difference in internal developmental assets score was associated with a .35 difference in the number of days of at least 60 min of PA in the previous week. Similarly, better perceived health (B = 0.32, β = 0.07, p < .0001) and stronger perceptions of caring from adults in the community (B = 0.10, β = 0.06, p < .0001) had significant and positive associations with PA after accounting for all variables (Model 6). Also, like the sport participation findings, stronger perceptions of caring from parents, friends, and teachers were positively and significantly associated with higher PA in earlier models; however, these associations were not significant after accounting for all variables (Model 6). In contrast to the observed null associations between weight-based bullying and sport participation, weight-based bullying was significantly associated with higher levels of PA (B = 0.30, β = 0.07, p < .0001). As expected, team sport participation (B = 1.11, β = 0.26, p < .0001) was associated with significantly higher self-reported PA in all models.

Table 5

Linear Regression Models Explaining Days of ≥60 Minutes of Physical Activity in Past Week Among Female Adolescents With High Weight Status Based on Developmental Assets, Weight-Based Bullying, and Team Sport Participation (N = 4,468)

 Model 4saModel 5sbModel 6c
BβSEpBβSEpBβSEp
Independent variables
 Higher internal developmental assets0.570.160.06<.00010.590.160.06<.00010.350.100.07<.0001
 Better perceived health (vs. worse)0.630.140.07<.00010.630.140.07<.00010.320.070.07<.0001
 Higher parent caring0.180.090.03<.00010.180.090.03<.00010.000.000.04.94
 Higher friend caring0.160.090.02<.00010.170.090.03<.00010.030.010.04.33
 Higher teacher caring0.180.100.03<.00010.180.100.03<.0001−0.07−0.040.04.04
 Higher adult in the community caring0.230.140.02<.00010.220.140.02<.00010.100.060.04<.0001
 Any weight-based bullying (vs. none)0.170.040.06.0070.110.030.06.070.300.070.07<.0001
 Any team sport participation (vs. none)1.310.300.06<.00011.230.280.06<.00011.110.260.07<.0001
Demographic variables
 Older age−0.22−0.140.02<.0001−0.22−0.140.02<.0001−0.16−0.100.02<.0001
 School location0.210.050.06.00060.220.050.06.00030.180.040.06.0003
 Physical disability or chronic health condition0.090.020.07.220.090.020.07.200.100.020.08.08
 Experienced housing and/or food insecurity−0.11−0.010.21.61−0.12−0.010.21.58−0.22−0.010.24.33

Note. Internal developmental assets and parent, friend, teacher, and other adult in community caring were treated continuously; perceived health, weight-based bullying (past month), and organized team sport participation were treated dichotomously. School location compares adolescents attending schools in the 7-County Twin Cities Metro to those in Greater Minnesota (reference group). We used a p value of ≤ .01 to determine statistical significance. B = unstandardized regression coefficient; β = standardized regression coefficient.

aModel 4s present B, β, SE, and p values for individual independent variables. bModel 5s adjust each independent variable for age, school location, diagnosis of physical disability or chronic health condition, and housing and/or food insecurity. cModel 6 is mutually adjusted for all independent and demographic variables. R2 for Model 6 = .13.

Discussion

We contributed new information to the literature by describing rates of organized team sport and PA participation among female adolescents with high weight status, comparing levels of developmental assets and weight-based based on sport and PA participation, and identifying differences in developmental assets based on sport and PA participation while considering whether female adolescents experienced weight-based bullying from peers. Previous research has revealed that many people—including coaches, teachers, and medical professionals—endorse stereotypes that youth with high weight status are lazy and unmotivated to be active (Puhl & Lessard, 2020; Zaroubi et al., 2021). However, our results contradict these stereotypes by showing that many female adolescents with high weight status engage in regular PA and are often involved in sport. More than a third of participants in our study played an organized team sport at least 1 day in a typical week, and on average, participants engaged in at least 60 min of PA on almost half of the days during the previous week.

In addition to quantifying sport and PA participation among female adolescents with high weight status, we applied a developmental assets lens and found that intrapersonal and social factors are related to sport and PA involvement in this population. We believe our study is the first to purposefully explore developmental assets, weight-based bullying, sport, and PA among female adolescents with high weight status, specifically, and to do so without a focus on weight as an outcome. We observed that female adolescents with high weight status who participated in any sport (vs. those who did not participate) reported higher levels of internal and social assets, and, interestingly, that they experienced weight-based bullying as frequently as those who did not participate in sport. We saw similar patterns regarding PA. Our findings suggest that better perceptions of one’s health, a positive sense of one’s identity, strong social competencies, and perceptions that people in one’s life care are associated with sport participation and PA for female adolescents with high weight status.

Our overall results were encouraging, but our data were cross-sectional. This prevents us from determining whether internal and social developmental assets contribute to and/or result from sport and PA participation over time among female adolescents with high weight status. Though assets-oriented research has typically not focused on youth with high weight, multiple frameworks and studies suggest that developmental assets (such as positive identity, social competence, and social support) motivate youth to participate in sport and PA (e.g., Weiss, 2000), whereas other literature emphasizes sport and PA as contexts that provide youth opportunities to build developmental assets (e.g., Petitpas et al., 2005; Weiss, 2016). Future research, including studies with qualitative approaches, path analyses, and longitudinal designs, could yield additional insight on developmental antecedents and outcomes in this population. If developmental assets are important to getting and keeping female adolescents with high weight status involved in sport and PA, adults may need to focus on helping them build internal and social assets before and as they enter sport and PA contexts. In addition, adults may need to critically evaluate whether and how sport and PA programs are safe, caring spaces that will encourage weight-diverse female adolescents to build positive relationships and self-perceptions.

Higher internal developmental assets and better perceived health had stronger relationships with sport and PA participation among female adolescents with high weight status, compared with other assets. These assets and perceptions of health may be especially important contributors to increased sport and PA participation, and/or they may be a direct result of sport and PA involvement. Furthermore, while perceptions of caring from all the sources we considered are important in young people’s lives (e.g., Beets et al., 2006, 2010; Petitpas et al., 2005; Weiss et al., 2019), female adolescents with high weight status who participate in a sport or another regular form of PA may have unique opportunities to develop caring relationships with other adults in the community (e.g., sport coaches, teammates’ parents, community center staff, and mentors). Relationships between youth and coaches are particularly important: coaches who are supportive, encouraging, and skilled in instruction can enhance youths’ self-esteem; help them feel connected to their teammates; and scaffold their motivation to participate in athletics and PA (Smoll et al., 1993; Weiss et al., 2021). Worthy of note, however, are previous findings that sport coaches sometimes bully adolescents with high weight status about their weight (Puhl et al., 2013). Future research should investigate strategies to decrease weight-based bullying by coaches, so that more youth with high weight status feel welcome and competent in sport and PA.

Another important area for future research is the interplay among developmental assets, weight-based bullying, and sport participation for female adolescents with high weight status. In our sample, almost half of female adolescents with high weight status had experienced weight-based bullying from other students at school in the previous month; other researchers have also found that this kind of bullying is similarly widespread (Hayden-Wade et al., 2005; Puhl & Lessard, 2020). However, in our cross-sectional study, weight-based bullying was unrelated to sport participation. This finding is promising, and we suspect that female adolescents with high weight status who are bullied and engage in sport are leveraging internal and social assets to do so. That is, these youth are encountering bullying and broader negative social messaging about people with high weight status, such as harmful assumptions about their physical abilities and diminishment of their athletic potential (Dark, 2019), and they are participating in sport regardless. Future work could use an assets-oriented approach to examine what helps female adolescents stay motivated to participate in the face of negative social stigma.

A final area for future research is the relationship between weight-based bullying and PA among female adolescents with high weight status. We observed a positive relationship between weight-based bullying and PA in this population; some, but not all, cross-sectional studies have also indicated that experiencing weight stigma is associated with higher PA or determined no association, but other studies have indicated that weight-related bullying can impair general health and young people’s PA levels (Hooper et al., 2022; Major et al., 2020; Puhl et al., 2017; Vartanian & Shaprow, 2008). The reasons for the positive association we observed are unclear. Using a developmental assets lens, it may be that when female adolescents with high weight status have high internal and social assets, bullying does not impair their PA participation: developmental assets may help adolescents who encounter bullying remain motivated to engage in PA. However, it is important to remember that a positive relationship between weight-based bullying and PA may occur alongside negative outcomes for youth. For instance, female adolescents with high weight status may be negatively affected psychologically by weight-based bullying and thus engaging in PA to mitigate the bullying they experience (i.e., using PA as a coping strategy or an attempt to lose weight and stop the bullying). Or it is possible that young people are being teased when they are being active or when they are in PA contexts (e.g., adolescents who spend more time in physical education or being active with friends may experience bullying more often). Given this complexity, we recommend further study of developmental assets and weight-based bullying.

Limitations and Strengths

As stated, this study was a secondary analysis of data from a cross-sectional, self-report survey. We cannot elucidate whether internal and social assets encourage female adolescents with high weight status to participate in sport and PA or if sport and PA participation cultivate internal and social assets; these relationships are likely bidirectional (Holt, 2016; Whitley et al., 2019).

As part of a statewide adolescent health survey, our items were brief, and future studies would benefit from more comprehensive measures. For instance, we knew little about the sport environments young people participated in, and we are not sure who they referenced when responding to items about interpersonal relationships, like the types of adults in the community. Similarly, our weight-based bullying item only addressed bullying from other students at school, not other social sources like parents or coaches (Puhl et al., 2013). Our PA measure was a single self-report item and may be less reliable and valid than a more comprehensive assessment, such as a more thorough questionnaire or accelerometry (Troped et al., 2007). Our sport measure included response options that precluded us from examining team sport participation continuously; future studies may want to examine how the amount of sport participation (in contrast to our use of a binary sport variable) relates to developmental assets. Researchers may also want to consider whether and how the interplay among internal and social assets, sport, PA, and weight teasing may vary for adolescents of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, and other social positions.

Our study had several strengths. We used an innovative, assets-oriented approach to study sport and PA among female adolescents with high weight status. An abundance of sport and PA literature focuses on weight loss and maintenance for this population, whereas research examining their attributes and broader psychosocial and health experiences is less common. Furthermore, our interdisciplinary team consisted of researchers in kinesiology, positive youth development, public health, and weight-related health and stigma and clinicians in pediatrics, nutrition, and nursing, allowing us to approach analyses and interpret findings in ways relevant to research and practice across disciplines. Finally, our study tested associations in a large, school-based sample of female adolescents with high weight status, rather than in a smaller clinical sample. Thus, our results have implications for community-based populations of adolescents.

Conclusion and Implications

Many female adolescents with high weight status regularly participate in sport and PA. They are participating in sport and PA even though they are being teased about their weight and encountering the milieu of sociocultural barriers associated with weight bias. This population is likely affected by weight-based bullying within and beyond sport and PA settings, and those who participate in sport and PA are likely leveraging intrapersonal and social strengths to do so when facing stigma (Faith et al., 2002; Hayden-Wade et al., 2005; Himmelstein & Puhl, 2019; Losekam et al., 2010).

To support female adolescents with high weight status in sport and PA settings, adults can strive to create safe, caring relationships and help participants build a positive sense of identity and social competence. Sport coaches, program staff, and other adults involved in youth activities have unique opportunities to help adolescents with high weight status feel cared about and motivated to engage in sport and PA; they may want to take particular care to avoid bullying youth participants about their weight. In addition, healthcare professionals and other adults, including those working in weight management settings, should not assume adolescents are inactive since many teens with high weight status are regularly active and play team sports. Rather, adults may choose to acknowledge the capacity of their patients to engage in sport and PA opportunities and partner with adolescents to build upon their internal and social assets.

Acknowledgments

Thank you to the students who completed the Minnesota Student Survey, as well as to the Minnesota Student Survey Interagency Team. Dr. Espinoza was supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, grant UL1TR002494. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences

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  • Whitley, M.A., Massey, W.V., Camiré, M., Boutet, M., & Borbee, A. (2019). Sport-based youth development interventions in the United States: A systematic review. BMC Public Health, 19(1), 120. https://doi.org/10.1186/S12889-019-6387-Z/TABLES/1

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  • Yourell, J.L., & Doty, J.L. (2022). Associations between weight-based bullying, developmental internal assets, and perceived social support among youth. Journal of School Health, 92(1), 4251. https://doi.org/10.1111/JOSH.13101

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  • Zaroubi, L., Samaan, T., & Alberga, A.S. (2021). Predictors of weight bias in exercise science students and fitness professionals: A scoping review. Journal of Obesity, 2021, Article 5597452. https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/5597452

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Female adolescents with high weight status regularly participate in sport and physical activity, despite often being bullied.

Those who participate have more internal and social assets than those who do not.

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  • Yourell, J.L., & Doty, J.L. (2022). Associations between weight-based bullying, developmental internal assets, and perceived social support among youth. Journal of School Health, 92(1), 4251. https://doi.org/10.1111/JOSH.13101

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    • Export Citation
  • Zaroubi, L., Samaan, T., & Alberga, A.S. (2021). Predictors of weight bias in exercise science students and fitness professionals: A scoping review. Journal of Obesity, 2021, Article 5597452. https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/5597452

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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