Exploring activity compensation amongst youth and adults: a systematic review

Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2022 Mar 12;19(1):25. doi: 10.1186/s12966-022-01264-6.


Background: Globally, significant efforts have focused on increasing physical activity and reducing sedentary behaviour in youth and adults across a range of settings (e.g., schools, workplaces, community, and home). Despite this, interventions have had varied efficacy and typically have failed to sustain changes in behaviours over time. One explanation that has been put forth to explain the mixed success of interventions is activity compensation. However, little is known about activity compensation, including whether compensation occurs, and perceptions and potential mechanisms of activity compensation. Understanding activity compensation would assist in tailoring and targeting of potential intervention strategies. The primary aim of this review was to synthesise research that has investigated activity compensation in youth and adults. The secondary aim was to identify potential reasons for and/or awareness of compensatory changes that may have occurred.

Methods: An electronic search of the EBSCOhost (via Academic Search Complete, CINAHL Complete, Education Source, Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition, PsycINFO, SPORTdiscus with Full Text), MEDLINE Complete, Global Health, EMBASE, Scopus and Web of Science databases up to May 2021 was conducted. Quality assessment of included quantitative studies used a modified compensation-specific McMaster Quality Assessment Tool.

Results: A total of 44 studies met the inclusion criteria (22 = adult populations; 22 = youth populations) and were classified as (1) quantitative (n = 31); (2) combination of quantitative and behavioural (n = 11); (3) behavioural only (n = 1); and (4) qualitative (n = 1). Of the 42 studies that included a quantitative component, 11 (26%) reported compensation occurred. Within the 13 studies examining specific behaviours, 35 behaviours were assessed, and evidence of compensation was inconsistent. Compensation mechanisms included fatigue, time constraints, lack of motivation, drive to be inactive, fear of overexertion, and autonomous motivation.

Conclusion: Little evidence of compensation was reported in the included quantitative studies; however, inconsistencies between studies makes comparisons difficult. There was considerable variability in the types of behaviours assessed in quantitative studies, and few studies examined potential compensatory mechanisms. Future research, using compensation specific study designs, methods, and analytic techniques, within different population sub-groups, should address these evidence gaps.

Keywords: Activity compensation; Activitystat; Adults; Physical activity; Sedentary behaviour; Youth.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Fatigue
  • Humans
  • Motivation*
  • Schools
  • Sedentary Behavior*
  • Workplace