Individual Differences in Exercise Behavior: Stability and Change in Genetic and Environmental Determinants From Age 7 to 18

C. Huppertz, M. Bartels, E.L. de Zeeuw, C.E.M. van Beijsterveldt, J.J. Hudziak, G. Willemsen, D.I. Boomsma, E.J.C. de Geus

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Exercise behavior during leisure time is a major source of health-promoting physical activity and moderately tracks across childhood and adolescence. This study aims to investigate the absolute and relative contribution of genes and the environment to variance in exercise behavior from age 7 to 18, and to elucidate the stability and change of genetic and shared environmental factors that underlie this behavior. The Netherlands Twin Register collected data on exercise behavior in twins aged approximately 7, 10, 12, 14, 16 and 18 years (N = 27,332 twins; 48 % males; 47 % with longitudinal assessments). Three exercise categories (low, middle, high) were analyzed by means of liability threshold models. First, a univariate model was fitted using the largest available cross-sectional dataset with linear and quadratic effects of age as modifiers on the means and variance components. Second, a simplex model was fitted on the longitudinal dataset. Heritability was low in 7-year-olds (14 % in males and 12 % in females), but gradually increased up to age 18 (79 % in males and 49 % in females), whereas the initially substantial relative influence of the shared environment decreased with age (from 80 to 4 % in males and from 80 to 19 % in females). This decrease was due to a large increase in the genetic variance. The longitudinal model showed the genetic effects in males to be largely stable and to accumulate from childhood to late adolescence, whereas in females, they were marked by both transmission and innovation at all ages. The shared environmental effects tended to be less stable in both males and females. In sum, the clear age-moderation of exercise behavior implies that family-based interventions might be useful to increase this behavior in children, whereas individual-based interventions might be better suited for adolescents. We showed that some determinants of individual differences in exercise behavior are stable across childhood and youth, whereas others come into play at specific ages. In view of the many benefits of regular exercise, identifying these determinants at specific ages should be a public health priority.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)665-679
JournalBehavior Genetics
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Cohort Studies

  • Netherlands Twin Register (NTR)


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