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  Online Active Communities: The role technology can play in the virtual support of our physical activity

   Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport

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  Dr P Coffee, Dr Jenni Connelly, Prof Anna Whittaker  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Lockdown and social isolation were common phrases that gained recognition during the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals were advised to not meet up with friends and loved ones, to stay indoors and avoid crowded places. Due to this guidance non-essential public spaces such as gyms and swimming pools were closed and exercising or meeting up in groups, inside and outside was not allowed. In light of these restrictions, physical activity levels dropped significantly1-2.

Physical activity (PA) has beneficial effects on both physical and mental health3. Guidelines recommend that adults engage in 150 minutes of PA a week. However, despite increasing knowledge of the benefits of PA, and advertisement of recommended guidelines and the associated benefits, inactivity is a growing cause for concern. The Scottish Health Survey (2020)4 reported that only 46% of adults in Scotland met the minimum recommended guidelines for physical activity dropping from the 66% from two years before5. It is estimated that nearly 17% of deaths in the United Kingdom, compared with 9% worldwide, can be attributed to physical inactivity3. This has severe financial implications on healthcare with inactivity costs in Scotland totalling £94.1million, and prescriptions and GP consultations associated with inactivity costing £58million and £8.3million respectively6.  

Given these startling statistics, physical activity interventions and initiatives have grown considerably in recent years. Physical activity has been delivered through a number of avenues such as face-to-face contact, telephone contact, print and mail materials, group based activities and technology7-10. Innovations in technology and access to the internet have led to an increased number of PA opportunities online, many of which were and still are utilised during the COVID 19 pandemic11. Using technology to deliver PA offers several advantages including the potential increased reach (compared to face-to-face), continuing availability, and cost containment7,10,12. Health concerns, low confidence, and the current pandemic have led to an increase in using the internet to get physical activity advice and even participate in online exercise classes. This may have led to changes in social support needs and how we engage with instructors and fellow participators as only social physical activity (out with the household) is carried out online.


Although a number of these interventions have been effective in stimulating physical activity behaviour changes, implementation of these methods of delivery has often been restricted by lack of time and appropriate personnel.  As well as finding it difficult to implement, interventions delivered tend to have a short term impact on physical activity behaviour13. This has resulted in more research looking at the psychological factors that affect continuation of PA, including a shared social identity and mutual social support. Studies have found that (1) a common social identity provides the basis for social support, (2) there is a small but positive change in social support through sustained exercise but that there is a gap in longitudinal knowledge of effects15, (3) there are multiple sources of social support16-17, and (4) there are multiple mechanisms to deliver social support17 in adults.


In regards to delivering online PA to ensure a continuation of physical activity, there is, therefore, a need to understand: (1) how a shared social identity can be fostered through an online environment, (2) the specific social support needs arising from online PA engagement and (3) the lessons we can learn from online physical activity promotion during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, it is important to identify and create different channels of social support delivery that can reach a large and broad range of the population including those who may not, or cannot, access more traditional face-to-face methods of delivery. 


The overarching aim of this PhD project is to investigate underpinning shared social identities, and the type and delivery methods of social support to increase and sustain physical activity levels in an adult population.

Entry Requirements

- a 1st or 2:1 degree in Statistics or a Health/Social Science subject

- a Master degree in a relevant topic area (e.g. psychology, physical activity, health sciences, public health)

- an interest in exercise psychology and physical activity promotion

- an interest in the research areas and methodologies involved in the project

How to apply

Applicants are asked to send in all the documentation listed below, attached as a single email, to [Email Address Removed]

Documents to attach include:

• Academic Transcript(s) and Degree Certificate(s): Final degree transcripts including grades and degree certificates (and official translations, if needed) - scanned copy in colour of the original documents.

• References: Two references on headed paper (academic and/or professional). At least one reference must be academic. The other can be academic or professional. Your references should be on official headed paper. These should also be signed by the referee. If your referees would prefer to provide confidential references direct to the University then we can also accept the reference by email, from the referee’s official university or business email account to [Email Address Removed] clearly labelling the reference FHSSSP040620(1)

• Copy of CV

• Applicant Statement

Computer Science (8) Medicine (26) Nursing & Health (27) Psychology (31) Sport & Exercise Science (33)

Funding Notes

- Self-Funded Students Only
- If you have the correct qualifications and access to your own funding, either from your home country or your own finances, your application
to work with this supervisor will be considered.


1. Puccinelli, P.J., da Costa, T.S., Seffrin, A. et al. Reduced level of physical activity during COVID-19 pandemic is associated with depression and anxiety levels: an internet-based survey. BMC Public Health 21, 425 (2021).
2. Stockwell S, Trott M, Tully M, et alChanges in physical activity and sedentary behaviours from before to during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown: a systematic reviewBMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 2021;7:e000960. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2020-000960
3. Lee I, Shiroma EJ, Lobelo F, Puska P, Blair SN, Katzmarzyk PT. Lancet Physical Activity Series Working Group. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: An analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. The Lancet 2012;380(9838):219-229.
4. Scottish health survey 2020; Available at:
5. Scottish health survey 2018; Available at: accessed 27/05/2020
6. Foster C, Townsend N. Costing the burden of ill health related to physical inactivity for Scotland. Health Scotland 2013: Accessed on January 10th 2018. Available at:
7. Steele, R. M., Mummery, W. K., & Dwyer, T. (2009). A Comparison of Face-to-Face or Internet-Delivered Physical Activity Intervention on Targeted Determinants. Health Education & Behavior, 36(6), 1051–1064.
8. Eakin EG, Lawler SP, Vandelanotte C, Owen N. Telephone interventions for physical activity and dietary behavior change: a systematic review. Am J Prev Med. 2007;32(5):419‐434. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2007.01.004
9. Short, C.E., James, E.L., Plotnikoff, R.C. et al. Efficacy of tailored-print interventions to promote physical activity: a systematic review of randomised trials. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 8, 113 (2011).
10. Connelly J, Kirk A, Masthoff J & MacRury S (2013) The use of technology to promote physical activity in Type 2 diabetes management: A systematic review. Diabetic Medicine, 30 (12), pp. 1420-1432.
11. BBC News: Coronavirus Creates Boom in National Fitness; available at
12. Griffiths F, Lindenmeyer A, Powell J, Lowe P, Thorogood M. Why are health care interventions delivered over the internet? A systematic review of the published literature. J Med Internet Res 2006 Jun 23;8(2):e10.
13. Fjeldsoe, B., Neuhaus, M., Winkler, E., & Eakin, E. (2011). Systematic review of maintenance of behavior change following physical activity and dietary interventions. Health Psychology, 30(1), 99–109.
14. Stevens, M., Rees, T., Coffee, P., Steffens, N. K., Haslam, S. A., & Polman, R. (2017). A Social identity approach to understanding and promoting physical activity. Sports Medicine, 47, 1911-1918.
15. Tanya Maria Filomena Scarapicchia, Steve Amireault, Guy Faulkner & Catherine Michelle Sabiston (2017) Social support and physical activity participation among healthy adults: a systematic review of prospective studies, International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10:1, 50-83, DOI: 10.1080/1750984X.2016.1183222
16. Hartley, C., Haslam, S. A., Coffee, P., & Rees, T. (2020). Social support. In S. A. Haslam, K. Fransen, & F. Boen (Eds.), Sport and exercise psychology: The social identity approach. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
17. Heaney, C. A. C. A., & Israel, B. A. (2008). Social networks and social support. In K. Glanz, B. K. Rimer, & K. Viswanath (Eds.), Health behavior and health education (4th ed., pp. 189–210). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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