Impact of Major Life Events on Former Athletes’ Adult Participation in Running


  • Wing Ka Tsang University of Waterloo
  • Mark E. Havitz University of Waterloo


physical activity, life course, turning points, major life events, adulthood, running, impact


This paper extends the growing body of leisure research related to impact of major life events into the realm of physical activity. Respondents were a homogenous group of 224 runners in the sense that all competed in varsity cross country at the intercollegiate level. This early-adult life similarity was deemed appropriate as it provides additional power to conclusions drawn regarding magnitude of major life events (none, minor, major) and impact (qualitative and quantitative) on later life participation. Respondents ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-90s, with an average age of just under 50. They reported on life events ranging from graduation, marriage, and addition of children, to changes in employment and residence, divorce, and death of a spouse. Data suggested that, on the whole, these highly involved and invested runners were relatively resilient to major events in their lives. Nearly 70% continued to run at some level. Respondents were more likely to report qualitative impact on running—sometimes positive, sometimes negative—than they were quantitative impact. The only exception to this rule was for addition of children to the family, and running less was, especially for women, the most common response. Although the majority of life events occurred during early adulthood, for example, graduation and marriage, those most challenging with respect to maintenance of running activity more often occurred a bit later in early midlife (children) and in middle age and beyond (serious injury and/or illness). Specific implications for practice are focused on those most impactful events. With respect to addition of children to the family, agencies are challenged to emphasize social support for young parents while remaining mindful of social norms that differentially impact men and women in this context. Proactive solutions are proposed for reducing likelihood and impact of serious running-related injuries, many of which focus on park and recreation agencies role in molding the built environment. As well, co-production opportunities with the sports medicine community are explored. The present research largely supports Whaley’s (2007) argument that impactful life events are spread over the entire lifespan and Carpenter and colleagues’ (multiple studies) conclusions regarding the complexity of interpreting life event impacts. 

Author Biographies

Wing Ka Tsang, University of Waterloo

Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies

Mark E. Havitz, University of Waterloo

Professor and Chair

Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies