Today’s post is a recycle of a paper I wrote about six years ago that I never got around to publishing. Rereading it the other day, I thought it was worth putting up here. Apologies that (i) it’s long (really) and; (ii) it’s written as an academic paper (so very different to my usual blog style – yes this is how we write for journals)… Bear with it and enjoy!
Participation in Extreme Sports: Debunking the myth if the “adrenaline junkie”
The so-called “extreme” sports have been popularised for marketing purposes, often representing participants as motivated by the “adrenaline buzz” of dangerous or irresponsible participation in difficult, remote activities. Moreover, the bulk of research into these activities has been associated with risk and sensation seeking, on the assumption that participation is, in fact, risky, and that those wishing to participate must have a higher need for risk exposure. Nevertheless, the majority of involvement is either low in actual risk or, where hazard is present, mediated by deliberate reductions in risk exposure. Thus, participation is unlikely to be motivated either by a sensation-seeking trait, or a desire for high levels of arousal. On the contrary, at an elite level, those involved in these pursuits are more likely to develop psychological techniques to reduce risk exposure and control arousal. Likewise, across all levels of involvement, there are a wide range of participation motives unrelated to risk inclination, including activity type, desire for optimal experience, task mastery, and health and wellbeing.
Several authors have recognised that the label “extreme sports” misinforms in several ways, in particular by not taking into account the multifactorial motives of participants (Rinehart & Sydnor, 2003). A more appropriate and less presumptuous label is “lifestyle activities” (or “lifestyle sports”: Wheaton, 2004), a title that implies that participants in these activities are likely to be motivated for reasons that extend beyond an “adrenaline buzz”.
Nevertheless, the “extreme sports” monikerhas been used extensively by corporations in order to market products that are seen to be tied in some way to various lifestyle activities. Several authors have already commented in depth on this phenomenon (e.g., Rinehart, Sydnor, 2003; Wheaton, 2004); however, whilst scholarly investigation of this fact has undoubtedly been of use, the popular perception of lifestyle activities remains one of “extreme” participation. As such, two problems have emerged. First, the assumption that lifestyle activity participants meet a particular stereotype has resulted in a lack of investigation of their actual characteristics. In fact, Tomlinson, Ravenscroft, Wheaton, and Gilchrist (2005) have concluded that current knowledge regarding who participates in lifestyle activities, participation rates, and the type, level, and way in which these activities are performed is “rudimentary at best” (Tomlinson, et al., p. 33). Second, as will be discussed, the stereotypical thinking about who participates and why appears, unfortunately, to have coloured research regarding the psychological investigation of risk; a flaw that has limited the utility of this research in explaining participation motives in the lifestyle activities.
Consequently, the remainder of this paper will be used to examine some of these assumptions, attempt to clarify the notions of risk in lifestyle activities, critique the notion of sensation seeking as a participation motive, and consider the possible alternative motives for participation in lifestyle activities.
The Psychology of Risk in Sport
Given that a large amount of the popular image associated with lifestyle activity participation centres on the perception of their high inherent risk, it is germane to examine the psychological literature surrounding risk, and the propensity to seek it.
The idea that certain people are more likely to engage in risky behaviours than others was first suggested by Becker (1973), who proposed the concept of “death anxiety”. According to Becker, most persons are, naturally, concerned about the prospect of death. Consequently, people engage in risky behaviours in an attempt to cheat death and, in the process, gain greater control over their lives. It should be noted that there has been no empirical evidence to support Becker’s theory, intriguing as it might be. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine how such a proposal could be validated empirically.
Risk Explored: Hazard and Perceived Versus Actual Risk
Risk is the perceived or actual likelihood of psychological or physical harm following an event, action, or situation (“Webster’s Online Dictionary”, 2008) and has been the subject of a substantial amount of psychological research and speculation. Similarly, hazard, can be described as a source of danger (“Webster’s Online Dictionary”) or, more specifically, the way in which an object or situation can cause harm (“Risk and Hazard: How They Differ”, 2003). Thus, in the context of a hazard, risk represents the chance that actual harm will occur, mediated by exposure, or the extent to which a likely recipient of harm is exposed to, or influenced by the hazard. Put another way, risk represents the likelihood that we will hurt ourselves (in some way) based on the way in which we interact (exposure) with something that is potentially dangerous (hazard).
One distinction often lacking in the contemporary literature surrounding risk and risk taking, is the difference between perceived risk (in which there is an expectation of potential harm, whether or not hazard exists), and actual risk (in which both the hazard and our exposure to it is potentially high, irrespective of the perceived risk). The presence of perceived risk does not automatically result in actual risk (e.g., rollercoaster rides are designed to feel dangerous whilst being extremely safe – low hazard), and vice versa (e.g., drink driving behaviour – high hazard). More specifically, whilst a substantial amount of research has been directed at understanding why people engage in behaviours with a real element of risk, but in which the perceived risk is downplayed or ignored (e.g., smoking, driving without a seatbelt, overeating), when it comes to participation in lifestyle activities many researchers assume that (whether or not the activity is hazardous) because of the perception of risk associated with these activities that they must, in fact, be dangerous (i.e., be high in actual risk). In other words, whilst it is possible that a minority of people might be predisposed to seek out risk, the assumption that lifestyle activities are inherently risky is flawed. This error has, unfortunately, compounded the stereotype of danger associated with these activities, and done little to increase our understanding of participation motives.
In his influential paper, Lyng (1990) introduced the concept of “edgework” activities, describing them as pursuits “that involve a clearly observable threat to one’s physical and or mental wellbeing, or one’s sense of an ordered existence” (p. 857). Lyng went on to describe activities such as skydiving, hang gliding, and rock climbing as examples of edgework activities – and, like many other researchers, has made a fundamental error in his assumption that these activities are in fact “death-defying” (p. 857). Lyng’s concept of edgework has been moderately influential in the sociological investigation of risk taking. For example, in his recent work, Fletcher (2008) based his argument that “high-risk” (p. 310) sports (such as rock climbing, skiing and skydiving) appeal to the middle-classes on the assumption that these activities are, in fact, risky (or at least perceived to be so).
Are “Extreme Sports” Actually Risky?
Given our discussion of risk as the participation in an activity in which there is a possibility of harm, it makes sense to compare the “extreme sports” with conventional sporting activities, in terms of risk, hazard and injury rates. Table 1 shows a variety of lifestyle activities, alongside several popular, conventional sports. Although the data in this area are relatively sparse, it is clear that an activity like rugby (both at amateur and professional levels) is substantially more “risky” than activities with a high level of perceived risk, such as mountain biking, or rock climbing. In fact, injuries in these activities are lower than in recreational running, a pastime considered to be relatively benign in terms of risk.
Comparison of Risk of Injury Between Lifestyle Activities and “Conventional” Sports
|Group||Activity||Activity hazard[i]||Severe activity risks||Lesser activity risks||Risks increased by||Risks mediated by||Injury severity (top 3 by type)|
|Lifestyle Activities||Rock climbing[ii]||3.1 per 1000 hours||Fall from height; Hit by falling objects; Equipment failure||Minor injury; Weather||Amount of time training and climbing; Difficulty of climb||Correct equipment; Expertise and training; Safety procedures||Chronic: 90% minor (e.g., finger overuse injuries); Acute: 10% injuries from falls (<1% serious)[iii]|
|Mountain biking (downhill)[iv]||2-4.5 per 1000 days[v]||Falls at speed; Impacts with objects||Minor falls; Chronic injuries||Difficulty of course; Steepness of terrain||Wearing of full-face helmet and body armour; Expertise and training; High quality equipment||Chronic: 90% minor (e.g., knee); Acute: 75% minor wounds (e.g., abrasions); 4% serious injury (including fractures, and injuries to head and joints)|
|Surfing (competitive)[vi]||13 per 1000 hours||Drowning; Impact injury with reef or rocks||Exposure; Minor injuries||Larger waves; Rocky bottom; Strong tides; Cold water||Wearing protective equipment (e.g., helmet, wetsuit); Expertise and training||Acute: 45% sprains, 35% laceration, 11% fracture|
|Skiing[vii]||3.9 per 100,000km travelled distance||Falls at speed; Impacts with objects||Exposure; Minor injuries||Difficulty of run; Steepness of terrain||Wearing protective equipment (e.g., helmet); Warm weather clothing; Expertise and training||Acute: 32% sprain, 20% fracture (lower leg), 5% joint dislocation/subluxation (knee)[viii]|
|Parachuting[ix]||3 per 1000 jumps||Ground impact; Impact with other obstacles; Equipment failure||Injuries from landing||Difficulty of jump (e.g., height, landing terrain, meteorological conditions)||Correct equipment; Expertise and training||Acute: majority minor fractures or sprains|
|“Conventional” Sports||Rugby[x]||160.6 per 1000 hours||Impact injuries; Crushing injuries||Impact injuries; Minor acute injuries||Level of competition; Duration of play; Fatigue||Expertise and training; Safety equipment (e.g., ear guards, mouth guards)||Acute: 50% head and neck, 30% knee|
|Football (soccer)[xi]||30.3 (competition) and 6.3 (training) per 1000 hours||Falls; Impact injuries||Minor injuries||Level of competition; Fatigue||Expertise and training||Chronic: 20% overuse injuriesAcute: 10% sprains (ankle), 8% fractures|
|Running / jogging[xii]||30.1 per 1000 hours||Falls; Overuse injuries||Minor injuries||Level of competition; Fatigue||Expertise and training||Chronic: 39% knee, 31% lower leg, 5% ankle|
[i]As defined by injury rates – usually number of injuries per 1000 hours or days of participation (Flores, Haileyesus, & Greenspan, 2008).
[ii] At elite level (Schoffl & Kuepper, 2006).
[iii] Among recreational and elite climbers (Jones, Asghar, & Llewellyn, 2008).
[iv] Among recreational mountain bikers (Kronisch & Pfeiffer, 2002).
[v] Among recreational and competitive mountain bikers (Burdick, 2005).
[vi] Among competitive surfers (Nathanson, Bird, Doa, & Tam-Sing, 2006).
[vii] Among recreational skiers (Ronning, Gerner, & Engebretsen, 2000).
[viii] Among recreational skiers and snowboarders (Sakamoto & Sakuraba, 2008).
[ix] Among recreational skydivers (“How safe is sport parachuting / skydiving?,” 2007).
[x] Among recreational and competitive rugby players (Gabbett, 2000).
[xi] Among competitive football players (Ekstrand, Walden, & Hagglund, 2004).
[xii] Among recreational runners (Buist, et al., 2008).
Potential for risk notwithstanding, it is important to reiterate that just because an activity might be perceived as risky, it is not necessarily dangerous, irrespective of hazard. Rather, it is the way in which a person engages in an activity that increases or reduces the consequent likelihood of injury or harm; that is, the exposure to risk. For instance, on the one hand, the majority of people would accept that regular exercise, such as jogging, or participation in aerobics classes is healthy and, because of the psychological and physical benefits associated with regular exercise (Biddle, 1995), actually reduces risk (of injury or illness). However, in a minority of exercisers, participation is “extreme” (in terms of duration, frequency, and intensity); a condition known as exercise dependence (Adams & Kirkby, 2002) which can result in serious negative consequences to physical and psychological health, including overtraining (Adams & Kirkby, 2001), depression (Adams & Kirkby, 1998), and eating disorders (Bamber, Cockerill, Rodgers, & Carroll, 2000). In this case, the exposure to the hazard (e.g., overtraining) has been increased substantially as a result of the extreme behaviour, increasing risk. On the other hand, whilst lifestyle activities such as rock climbing can potentially be highly hazardous, by reducing the exposure (e.g., by using appropriate safety gear, by obtaining expertise, and by using safety procedures), the actual risk is reduced substantially. Nevertheless, to an untrained observer (who cannot appreciate the techniques by which the expert has reduced his or her hazardous exposure) the activity is still perceived as highly risky.
Can sensation seeking explain participation motives in lifestyle activities?
Distinctions between perceived and actual risk (based on exposure to hazards) notwithstanding, many researchers have assumed that participants in so-called risky activities do so because they are drawn to risk. An influential attempt to explain this supposed propensity to seek out risk has been developed by Zuckerman (1979) and expanded on by a wide range of authors and researchers since. According to Zuckerman, this trait labelled “sensation seeking”, defines people who seek out sensations that are novel, varied, and complex, and who are willing to take both psychological and physical risks in order to achieve these sensations. Zuckerman proposed four distinct subtypes of the sensation-seeking personality: ‘thrill and adventure seeking’, manifest in participation in activities that are perceived as risky; ‘experience seeking’, in which an individual seeks novel sensations through a combination of mental and sensual novelty, and often engages in a “nonconformist” lifestyle; ‘disinhibition’, involving sensation seeking through social stimulation and the social use of alcohol and other recreational drugs; and ‘boredom susceptibility’, or an aversion to situations that are monotonous or invariant.
Whilst Zuckerman’s theory (1979) has been widely accepted by researchers and laypersons alike as a plausible explanation for risk-seeking behaviour, it does not explain motivation for participation in lifestyle activities adequately. It is not reasonable to assume that, because an activity is promoted or perceived as risky, that it is in fact risk inherent. Nonetheless, several researchers have provided evidence that appears, at first glance, to support the suggestion that those who participate in supposed “high risk” activities (i.e., lifestyle activities) are also sensation seekers (i.e., those that score highly on Zuckerman’s sensations seeking scale: Zuckerman, Kolin, Price, & Zoob, 1964). For example, in a recent attempt to shed light on the underlying mechanisms of Zuckerman’s sensation seeking personality, Lissek et al. (2005) examined startle responses in 17 high sensation-seeking scorers, and 17 low scorers. Based on their findings, that those with higher sensation-seeking scores were less easily startled, Lissek and his coinvestigators postulated that low sensation-seeking scores actually represent a latent predisposition toward anxiety that is only manifest in the presence of stress, resulting in a heightened fear response in situations perceived as dangerous. On the other hand, the researchers suggested that high sensation-seekers possess a muted physiological response to perceived risk, making it more likely that that they will experience positive arousal in potentially dangerous situations (and, consequently, that participation in activities with higher perceived risk will be reinforced positively). Whilst Lissek and his colleagues are to be congratulated on their attempt to provide an explanation for sensation seeking in activities with a high perceived risk, they neglected to provide a link between sensation-seeking scores and actual participation in these activities, instead basing their speculations on a simple, lab-based startle test. It could be argued that the complex array of variables associated with participation in an “extreme” activity cannot be simulated easily in laboratory conditions, especially by a single procedure. More importantly, the existence of a correlation between a paper and pencil-based test (i.e., sensation seeking) and degree of startle does not imply causation (i.e., that sensation seeking scores – representative of a certain personality type – are responsible for a higher or lower startle response). Lastly, that the researchers provided no information about their participant sample (beyond age and gender) reduces the applicability of their findings.
In a direct examination of the association between involvement in “high risk” recreational activities (including in-line skating, bungy jumping, scuba diving, skiing, and rock climbing) and sensation seeking traits, Schrader and Wann (1999), who recruited 87 male and 82 female college students, concluded that higher scores on a measure of sensation seeking predicted a greater likelihood of “high-risk” activity participation. Unfortunately, Schrader and Wann’s research is vulnerable to several criticisms. First, their reliance on self-report regarding their participants’ recreational pursuits, with no measure of degree of involvement, level of proficiency, or frequency of activity, resulted in information that was incomplete and unreliable. Second, the investigators made no effort to quantify the level of risk in those activities deemed “high-risk”, instead, these pursuits were lumped together as being equally “risky”. Third, Schrader and his coinvestigator did not report scores on the various sensation-seeking subscales, reducing the utility of their findings. Last, and most importantly, whilst Schrader and Wann demonstrated a relationship between higher sensation-seeking scores and participation in high-risk recreation, they did not determine whether these scores were manifest in the upper ranges (in relation to population-norm scores). That is, simply finding a relationship between higher scores on one variable, and participation in another, provides no information on the dose-response: unless high-risk participants scored abnormally high on sensation seeking, it is fallacious to argue a contributory relationship.
In another, more recent attempt to relate sensation seeking to participation in an “extreme” sport, Boyd and Kim (2007) compared sensation seeking scores among 68 adolescent skateboarders with their scores on measures of mood state and task orientation. According to the investigators, there was a high positive correlation between positive mood state and high sensation seeking and task orientation, and a corresponding negative correlation between negative mood states (including anger and tension) and higher sensation-seeking and task-orientation scores. Despite providing no evidence to support their assumption that skateboarding was perceived as (or actually is) risky, Boyd and his colleague interpreted their results as confirmation that sensation seeking is a motivator for participation in potentially risky sports. Specifically, like Lissek et al. (2005), they suggested that those with higher sensation seeking tendencies were less likely to be put off by perceived risk, and more likely to try harder at an activity, even when there is a higher chance of injury.
Their assumption that skateboarding is perceived as risky notwithstanding, Boyd and Kim’s (2007) assertion that a correlation between sensation seeking score and positive mood is representative of an actual effect is rendered moot by the fact that mean scores among their skateboarding participants on the sensation-seeking instrument were extremely low (m = 3.23, SD = .68). Scores on the same instrument for those placed in Lissek et al.’s (2005) low-score group averaged 15.4, whilst those in the high-score group averaged 26.4. Even more importantly, in Boyd and Kim’s study, the sensation seeking and mood measures were administered independently of the actual skateboarding. No doubt the adolescent participants also enjoyed eating hamburgers; consequently, to suggest that sensation seeking and mood are related to skateboarding preference without taking the skateboarding into account, is tantamount to saying that a correlation between scores on sensation seeking and mood instruments is a motivator for eating fast food.
Although they did not directly examine sensation seeking, Larkin and Griffiths (2004), who examined risk based on the relationship between participation in “dangerous sports” (p. 217) and recreational drug use, made many of the same errors as Schrader and Wann (1999) and Boyd and Kim (2007). Based on a qualitative analysis, the researchers concluded that participants (five bungee jumpers and six ecstasy users) associated risk with pleasure, and gauged both risk and pleasure on a variety of dimensions. Nevertheless, Larkin and Griffith’s assumption that the dangerous sport (in this case bungy jumping) and recreational drug use (ingestion of MDMA) engaged in by their participants were, in fact, risky was flawed. Not only did Larkin and his colleague make no effort to quantify the real level of risk associated with these activities, they also made no attempt to determine whether these pursuits were really the societal-fringe activities that they made them out to be. As well, given that the majority of so-called dangerous sports are, in fact, low in actual risk (despite being perceived as risky, see Table 1), Larkin and his colleague appear to have swallowed the popular media’s message that these activities are actually dangerous.
Consequently, despite findings suggesting that a sensation-seeking personality can predict participation in risky activities, this assumption can be criticised for two main reasons. First, because of methodological limitations, researchers have yet to demonstrate this relationship conclusively without adequately accounting for alternative explanations; and, second, because researchers have mistakenly assumed that if an activity is described as risky it is, in fact, dangerous. In other words, because investigators have perceived an activity as risk inherent, and found a relationship between participation in these activities and higher scores on a sensation-seeking instrument, the assumption that this relationship is both valid and encompassing is presumptuous.
In the light of these criticisms, a more appropriate way of determining whether risk propensity is actually predicted by sensation-seeking traits would be to examine whether participants in supposedly high-risk activities are motivated by the perception of risk. In one such investigation, Schneider, Butryn, Furst, and Masucc (2007) examined qualitatively the participation motives and activity-based perceptions of 10, elite adventure racing participants; an event that, according to Schneider and her colleagues, is associated with high sensation-seeking scores. Schneider et al. reported that despite the potential for risk, participants did not perceive adventure racing as a high-risk sport. Rather, the participants highlighted the importance of adequate physical and mental preparation in order to mediate any tangible risks. Moreover, participants did not report that they were motivated by a simple desire for sensation seeking. Instead, they identified a range of complex motives that, whilst including a want for physical, emotional, and psychological challenge, also encompassed social influence; interpersonal interaction, support, trust, and bonding relationships; and preparation, training, and skills development (including coping and mental focus), in order to understand and reduce any risks.
Whilst Schneider et al.’s (2007) research is laudable, they failed to actually assess sensation-seeking scores among their participants; preferring instead to work on the assumption that, because earlier researchers had found an association between sensation-seeking scores and adventure racing, that their participants would also score highly in sensation seeking. As such, their assertion that sensation seeking is not a participation motive for these participants should be interpreted with caution.
Criticisms notwithstanding, like Schneider et al. (2007), other researchers have also shown that desire or innate need for risk alone is not an adequate predictor of lifestyle activity participation. Rainey, Amunategui, Agocs, and Larick (1992), for instance, who investigated sensation-seeking and sport-competitive anxiety scores in “extreme” sport participants (19 rodeo competitors and 28 hang-glider pilots), and conventional sportspeople (39 basketballers and 29 wrestlers) found that the “extreme” sports participants scored no more highly on either measure than did regular sport participants. Consequently, Rainey and his colleagues concluded that (at least in rodeo participation), motivation to participate is more likely the result of cultural motives than a sensation-seeking personality. Similarly, Breivik (1996), who compared Everest (n = 7) and elite (n = 26) climbers with sports students (n = 43) and military recruits (n = 26) on sensation-seeking scores, found no significant differences between the groups, and suggested that other factors were responsible for motivating participation in the perceived “high-risk” group. Unfortunately, both Rainey et al. and Breivik failed to quantify the level of risk in the assessed activities – like many researchers in this area they appear to have based their risk assessments on their own assumptions about an activity’s risk, rather than by using objective data such as incidences or rates of injury. Moreover, neither set of researchers employed a control group, reducing the validity of their conclusions.
In a study of sensation seeking and risk that attempted to quantify actual risk to participants, Slanger and Rudestam (1997) looked at differences on sensation-seeking scores between 20 participants who purportedly engaged in high-risk activities, and another 20 who engaged in the same activities at a lower level of risk (as rated by the various grading systems used in rock climbing, white-water kayaking, and skiing). As well, a control group (n = 20) was comprised of those who did not participate in any “risk” sports. Slanger and her colleague reported that, even when actual risk (based on hazardous exposure levels) was taken into account, there were no significant differences in sensation-seeking scores between the groups, again suggesting that sensation seeking has little to do with motivation to participate in activities even when they are perceived to be high risk.
One criticism of much of the research in this area is that the sensation-seeking scores of participants were not compared to any normal-score tables. As such, it is not possible to compare the findings from these investigations to population norms, in order to determine if participants’ scores were, in fact, abnormally high. Hughes, Case, Stuempfle, and Evans (2003) addressed this concern in their comparison of sensation-seeking and personality scores from 66, elite adventure racers against normal-score tables. Nevertheless, even with this consideration, Hughes and her coinvestigators reported no significant differences between the personality and sensation-seeking scores of their sample, and normal population scores.
Lastly, in a more recent study, Llewellyn and Sanchez (2008) examined sensation-seeking scores, as well as scores on measures of self-efficacy and experience level among 88 male and 28 female semi-elite rock climbers. In order to assess actual risk taking, climbers were rated based on their soloing and lead-climbing (in terms of frequency and difficulty). In this case, despite there being no significant differences between the climbers in terms of experience or ability, sensation-seeking scores were actually found to be inversely related to increased risk taking. That is, those with higher sensation-seeking scores were less likely to take increased risks than those with lower scores. Llewellyn and his colleague concluded that, in the “extreme” sports, elevated risk taking is not the result of sensation-seeking needs.
It should be noted that the sensation seeking scale (SSS: Zuckerman, et al., 1964) on which many of these researchers have relied, could be poorly suited to the complexities of sporting or lifestyle activities. The SSS contains no questions directly relating to sport, and only two questions associated with lifestyle activities (desire to participate in “mountain climbing” and parachuting). More importantly, when used with participants in lifestyle activities, the questions are either not specific to a person’s activity of preference, or refer to a desire to participate in something that is already engaged in. Either way, the SSS is unlikely to capture a participant’s feelings about his or her chosen activity accurately; motivation to participate in a lifestyle activity is probably substantially more complicated than “I would like to try parachute jumping” (Zuckerman, et al.), no matter what the resultant SSS score.
Given the lack of a consistent relationship between sensation-seeking score and lifestyle activity participation, perhaps researchers should consider the notion that an inherent desire for risk is simply not a suitable measure for determining a person’s lifestyle activity participation motives. Instead, researchers should consider a multifactorial approach to participation, including among other things, individual characteristics, social influences, health and wellbeing, mastery needs, and intrinsic motivators such as flow (see below for a discussion of alternative participation motives).
In summary, there are three distinct flaws in the body of the sensation-seeking research associated with lifestyle activities. First, despite the suggestion that a sensation-seeking personality drives people to participate in activities that they perceive as high risk, those researchers who have made this conclusion have either made substantial methodological errors, or have (without empirical evidence) simply assumed that an activity is risky because it appears to be. Second, there is considerable evidence that a so-called sensation-seeking personality (represented by high scores on a measure of sensation seeking) is, in fact, unrelated to participation in lifestyle activities, whether or not the activity is perceived to be, or actually is risky. Third, use of Zuckerman’s sensation seeking scale (1964) is unlikely to highlight a person’s motivations, due to its lack of complexity in addressing lifestyle activity motives. Thus, the likely complex and multidimensional motivations for participation in lifestyle activities, combined with the lack of a demonstrated association between sensation-seeking score and lifestyle-activity participation, suggests that the narrow focus on sensation seeking as the principal lifestyle activity motivator is misplaced.
Debunking the “Adrenaline Junkie” Myth
So far, it has been argued that (in terms of risk) the so-called “extreme sports” are not necessarily extreme; and that lifestyle activity participants do not automatically seek out risk, and are not necessarily sensation seekers.
Recently, Olivier (2006) attempted a moral stance in his discussion of participation motives for those engaging in lifestyle activities. His essay is well reasoned and examines the various moral approaches to individual risk taking, making the recommendation that individuals be able to make their own decisions regarding participation in dangerous activities, without external (governmental or societal) regulation. Unlike other authors, Olivier has distinguished between popular participation in lifestyle activities, and the extreme fringe of these activities (e.g., big-wave surfing, high-altitude mountaineering, breath-hold freediving, and solo rock climbing), in which only a minority of elites participate. With regards the argument that the “extreme sports” moniker is misleading, this distinction is important: where there is a high actual risk, those few who participate do so at an elite level, requiring substantial training, ability and commitment. Nevertheless, even at these levels, injury rates are still low and, when compared to both injury and participation rates in conventional sports, almost negligible. This differs substantially from the earlier illustration of exercise dependence among conventional exercisers (Adams & Kirkby, 2002); it would seem that, unlike exercise-dependent exercisers, elite, lifestyle-activity athletes are highly aware of the potential (actual) risks (of injury and death) and go to lengths to minimise these risks.
Moreover, given that participation in lifestyle activities at an “extreme” level requires a substantial level of skill, dedication, training, and commitment, from a sport-psychology perspective it is highly unlikely that these participants are motivated by a desire for an “adrenaline rush”. Empirical examinations and discussions of the effects of overarousal in sport performance are common in the sport-psychology literature (e.g., Cheng, Hardy, & Markland, 2009; O Thomas, Hanton, & Maynard, 2007). To summarise briefly, when perceived danger activates the fight or flight survival response (stimulation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system), the body responds with a series of physiological changes, including release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, increased heart rate, a narrowed perceptual field, and slowed digestion (Suinn, 2005), and with a corresponding rise in anxiety (Harmison, 2006). However, once arousal gets beyond a certain level, physical and psychological performance drops sharply (Krane & Williams, 1994). Consequently, in order to improve performance, it is often the job of the sport psychologist to work with athletes to help them control and reduce their arousal levels (O. Thomas, Maynard, & Hanton, 2007). Given the high level of mental, physical and motor-control functioning required for elite-level participation not only in lifestyle activities (such as skiing, climbing, or mountain biking), but also in conventional sports, the elevated levels of arousal consequent to a large adrenaline release would, in fact, be counter-productive to performance (reducing concentration, attention, focus, and fine motor control); and, given the risks associated with failure in many lifestyle activities performed at an elite level, potentially injurious or even fatal. Moreover, because continued participation requires a healthy, noninjured state, these participants would be highly motivated to maintain strict control over their arousal levels. As such, it is decidedly unlikely that persons participating in lifestyle activities at an expert or elite level would actively seek an adrenaline-enhanced state.
Those researchers who have examined “adrenaline-buzz” seeking in lifestyle activity participation have also indicated that it is a highly unlikely motive. Bunting, Tolson, Kuhn, Suarez, and Williams (2000), for example, assessed neuroendocrine levels (specifically, urinary levels of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol) in 15 experienced and nonexperienced rock-climbers and white-water kayakers. Ability was assessed based on objective fitness evaluations and in-situ tests of task-specific performance. According to Bunting and her coinvestigators, as expected, the advanced rock-climbing and kayaking conditions elicited the greatest neuroendocrine response, however, this was moderated by both aerobic fitness and experience level. In other words, the fitter, more experienced participants (who were engaging in the more “extreme” and “risky” activities) actually produced lower levels of adrenaline and the other catecholamines, than those with less experience. Unfortunately, whilst this finding is compelling, the sample size was too small to provide adequate statistical power for Bunting et al.’s choice of analysis.
Bunting et al.’s (2000) findings have found support, however, in Fave, Bassi, and Massimini’s (2003) qualitative (and nonchemical) investigation of perceptions of risk among six, high-altitude climbers. According to the researchers, the perception of risk and desire for a “buzz” among the climbers was entirely unrelated to their motivation to climb, with other factors, such as maximising both challenge and skill in order to increase the likelihood of flow (see below) taking precedent. In fact, the climbers went out of their way to minimise actual risk, through an active process of mental and physical training and preparation.
In their comprehensive, qualitative examination of the mental strategies used by 10 high-altitude mountaineers who had successfully climbed Mt. Everest, Burke and Orlick (2003) also showed that, despite the extreme danger posed to the participants during their climb, high levels of arousal (and an adrenaline rush) were seen as dangerous and irrelevant. Instead, in order to reduce risk by controlling arousal levels and increasing concentration, the participants reported engaging in distinct mental strategies preascent, during the ascent, and on the descent. Amongst these techniques were sport psychology-related abilities, such as mental imagery, short and medium-term goal setting, focusing, mental toughness, and self-confidence development. According to the participants, a combination of hard physical and mental training helped them deal with extreme levels of pain and exhaustion so that they were able to remain focused and in control during their climb. Moreover, their successful participation had led to greater self-confidence, increased self-realisation, and a feeling of worth that had not been present prior to their climb. In other words, despite the fact that high-altitude mountaineering is one of the most dangerous lifestyle activities (with participants facing a real and present threat of injury or death), none of the participants were motivated by a desire for high levels of arousal. Instead, each recognised that increased arousal was a potential risk factor, and trained comprehensively to manage and minimise it, so as to be able to maintain focus and control throughout the climb (Burke & Orlick).
The finding that a desire for an adrenaline rush is a poor participation motive for lifestyle activity has not been exclusive to climbers and kayakers. Griffith, Hart, Goodling, Kessler, and Whitmire (2006) reported that, following their investigation of pain-coping styles in 134 BASE jumpers (a form of extreme parachuting), those with greater experience were more likely to possess more conservative coping styles (i.e., less likely to expose themselves to situations that could result in pain). According to the investigators, this suggests that jumpers with more experience were more aware of the risks involved in their activity, and had developed greater self-preservation skills in order to reduce those risks. Consequently, experienced jumpers were substantially less likely to be motivated by the desire for a high level of arousal, which could impair their ability to perform under pressure and increase the likelihood of accident or injury.
In summary, whilst it must be acknowledged that, in a small minority of participants, a high level of arousal might well be a principle lifestyle activity participation motive, an examination of the literature indicates that this is simply not the case for the majority. As has been shown, neither a “sensation seeking” personality nor a desire for a “buzz” explain the desire to participate adequately. Nevertheless, given the increasing popularity of activities such as mountain biking and rock climbing (Tomlinson, et al., 2005), if this “adrenaline buzz” is not the main motivator for lifestyle activity involvement, then other explanations are required.
Alternative Reasons for Participation in Lifestyle Activities
Flow and Optimal Experience
One potential motivator for lifestyle-activity participation (whether urban or naturally based) that has received substantial attention is the notion of flow. First proposed by Csikszentmihalyi (2002), flow represents a highly desirous subjective mental state, in which an individual is able to perform at a high level, without mental distraction, and that results in substantial feelings of wellbeing and pleasure. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is highly likely during participation in lifestyle activities, especially when perceived challenge and skill levels are well matched.
Several authors have associated the desire for flow experiences with participation in lifestyle activities. For example, in their qualitative investigation of the involvement motives of six elite mountaineers, Delle Fave et al. (2003) highlighted the importance of flow experiences for the climbers, which often represented the primary motive for ongoing participation. Similarly, in her qualitative investigation of eight “extreme sports” participants, Willig (2008) also reported that participants were motivated by a variety of reasons, among which the desire for flow experiences figured predominantly. Unfortunately, Willig did not describe the type of lifestyle activities in which her participants were involved adequately, or their level of experience, reducing the applicability of her reported findings.
A related concept to flow is optimal experience, in which a person feels a high level of connection (typically emotional and spiritual) with his or her activity, and a resultant strong (positive) emotional response (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Because these optimal experiences (including flow experiences) are so inherently pleasant, they can represent a substantial motive for engagement in lifestyle activities, a theme explored by Watson and Nesti (2005) in their review of spirituality in sport psychology consulting. Watson and his coauthor have argued that flow and optimal experiences represent an important part of the spiritual (i.e., exploration of self in the context of self-actualisation) experience associated with involvement in any engaging sporting activity (including lifestyle activities), and can be highly beneficial both for performance and ongoing mental health. Consequently, according to Watson and Nesti, in seeking out experiences that are spiritually uplifting, individuals are not only likely to enhance their performance in that activity, but also to increase their sense of personal wellbeing. As such, the activity becomes the motivation for ongoing participation.
A widely-cited work (in the social sciences) by Le Breton (2000) follows the line set by Csikszentmihalyi (2002) and Watson and Nesti (2005), in assigning the motives of lifestyle activity participants to the desire for “…a sudden rush of sensation that overwhelms participants” (p. 9). Le Breton has provided cherry-picked examples of these experiences in order to advance his hypothesis that this need for intense experience explains participation in lifestyle activities. Whilst he is to be commended in his attempt to divorce participation motives from the exclusive desire for risk, because Le Breton’s thesis is based on singular examples of a small number of outstanding individuals, it is not necessarily applicable to the wider audience of lifestyle activity participants, and has not been tested in any empirical manner in this regard.
In fact, unfortunately, the quantification of flow remains problematic. Despite both substantial qualitative investigation and a considerable number of anecdotal reports of flow experiences during lifestyle activity participation, there remains a dearth of empirical research associating flow with lifestyle activity type, level of participation, or psychological benefit. Consequently, given its suggested potential to enhance psychological health and wellbeing, the empirical investigation of flow propensity in the lifestyle activities should be a focus for future researchers.
Levels of Participation: Recreational Versus Elite Participation
Lifestyle activity involvement can vary from minor, entry-level participation in moderate environments, to extreme, elite involvement in highly challenging environments. This distinction can occur both between and within activities. For example, mountain biking at an entry level might comprise gentle, bridleway riding over relatively short distances. At the opposite end of the spectrum, mountain biking can involve remote, intensely-difficult riding, incorporating vertical descents, and in excess of five-metre drop-offs. Similarly, using the various grading systems in rock climbing, participation can range from a complicated ramble, to extraordinarily difficult and technical climbs achievable by only a handful of climbers worldwide. There are two main differences between entry and recreational-level participation, and high-level to elite involvement. First, on the one hand, entry-level participation requires little training, skill, or commitment, and is usually not particularly hazardous (making it relatively low in actual risk); meaning that participants can sample activities (that they might perceive as “extreme” and, therefore, risky) without exposing themselves to danger. On the other hand, high-level participation in all lifestyle activities requires high to very-high levels of skill, regular training, and commitment (including commitment of travel and training time, financial resources, and energy), and is potentially hazardous. Second, entry-level participation is more likely to be motivated for extrinsic reasons, such as exposure to perceived risk, implied adventure, social pressure, or the perceived status to be gained from participation. Alternatively, those who are committed in their involvement are more likely to be motivated intrinsically, especially given the physical, time, and financial demands of most high-level lifestyle activities. In other words, high-level participation in most lifestyle activities is expensive (e.g., specialist gear, travel, training courses, coaching, time away from work), time consuming (e.g., travel, training, practice), is physically and mentally demanding (e.g., intense, difficult activity in potentially extreme environments, such as extreme cold or heat) and, possibly, injurious. Consequently, unless a person is motivated for intrinsic reasons, he or she is unlikely to continue to expose him or herself to repeated costs, discomfort and potential danger.
The question of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation appears key in the progression from entry-level participation to more committed involvement in any form of recreation. In fact, according to Buckworth, Leeb, Reganc, Schneiderd, and DiClemente (2007), most people commence physical exercise programmes for extrinsic reasons (such as the desire to lose weight) and, if they receive adequate encouragement and feedback, begin to develop more intrinsic motives (e.g., enjoying feeling stronger and more energised, or liking the social interaction when exercising) until the activity becomes self-sustaining. Unfortunately, this process is by no means automatic; the development of intrinsic motivation can be damaged by a lack of positive feedback, negative perceptions regarding the activity, a lack of perceived progress, unrealistic goals, the repeated use of extrinsic rewards as motivators or, simply, boredom (Frederick, Morrison, & Manning, 1996). It is largely for these reasons that only about 50% of those who start an exercise programme are likely to still be exercising regularly six months later (Stuart J. Biddle & Fox, 1989). With regards lifestyle-activity participation, a similar process is liable to occur, with those attempting an activity like mountain biking for the perceived “buzz” most likely dropping out as soon as they realise that the activity requires physical fitness, high-levels of exertion, technical skill, and dedicated time spent in achieving these states. Nevertheless, according to Tomlinson, Ravenscroft, Wheaton, and Gilchrist (Tomlinson, et al., 2005), a large proportion of lifestyle activity participants do appear to be intrinsically motivated; lifestyle activity participants are likely to make these activities a major part of their lives for a considerable period of time, investing substantial personal resources. This commitment suggests that lifestyle activities are potentially more likely to stimulate intrinsic motivation than other, less absorbing physical activities.
Skill Development and Mastery
The potential difficulties in achieving intrinsic motivation notwithstanding, one of the best ways of enhancing it is to increase a person’s self-efficacy (Martin & Gill, 1991). Self-efficacy is most readily increased when a person experiences success in a specific area (Bandura, 2004), and a simple way of encouraging success is to engineer situations in which a person can see an obvious development in skill following participation in a given activity. So long as this progression remains obvious, and the individual is able to perceive an increase in ability, the subsequent increase in self-efficacy should, over time, result in an increase in intrinsic motivation and a consequent increased likelihood of continued participation; especially if the process of achieving mastery is thought of as a process goal (i.e., improvement, rather than some sort of outcome, becomes the major motive for ongoing participation). This principle can also be applied in increasing the chances of progression from entry-level, to recreational participant, to committed practitioner. It should be noted, however, that with the increased perception of risk associated with an activity, there is a corresponding likelihood of a higher perception of challenge, combined with a lowered perception of control and resultant negative affect (Harter, 1981). It is important, therefore, that challenge perceptions be matched to a person’s own perceived skill level; when perceptions of challenge and skill are level, there is a reduced likelihood of control issues, and a greater chance of intrinsic enjoyment. However, when perceived challenge rises above a person’s perceived ability to cope with that challenge, he or she is likely to experience stress, and a reduced likelihood of intrinsic motivation (and, consequently, of ongoing participation) (Deci & Ryan, 1985).
Health and Wellbeing
The sensation-seeking bias of research surrounding risk has placed a relatively negative focus on the lifestyle activities, and the marketing label associated with both the activities and their protagonists has resulted in their stereotyping as societal fringe dwellers, alongside a widespread perception that participation is dangerous and involves a high risk of injury or death. As has been shown, these assertions are, for the most part, false, with an increasing popularity of the lifestyle activities (Tomlinson, et al., 2005) suggesting that participation results in some sort of benefit or positive outcome.
In fact, the positive consequences of participation in lifestyle activities can be substantial. At a more obvious level, activities such as mountain biking, skiing, and rock climbing all require physical fitness (ranging from moderate fitness at entry level, to world-class fitness at elite level) combined with training that is specific to the particular activity (e.g., leg strength and endurance in skiing). As with many other physical activities a higher level of physical fitness corresponds to a greater ability to participate in, and get the most out of an activity. Needless to say, there is a substantial amount of research that highlights the physical health benefits of regular, intense physical activity (e.g., Blair, Kohl, Gordon, & Paffenbarger, 1992; Dubbert, 2002; Larson & Bruce, 1987; Lee, 1995; Lee, Paffenbarger, & Hennekens, 1997; Mersy, 1991). Given that, in general, physical activity participation activity is low (Health Survey for England, 2003; Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, 1996), any activity that encourages regular, high-level physical exercise can be considered to be of potential benefit to health. This link has not been overlooked by policy makers: the encouragement of increased physical activity through participation in lifestyle activities has been considered and promoted in several countries (e.g., Kay, 2005; Tomlinson, et al., 2005).
Whilst the physical benefits of participation in lifestyle activities might be obvious, the psychological benefits are often overlooked. Nevertheless, at a most basic level, any participation in regular physical activity has numerous benefits to mental health, including lowered depression (Biddle & Fox, 1989), reduced anxiety (Byrne & Byrne, 1993), more stable mood (Anthony, 1991), increased happiness (Berger, Owen, & Man, 1993), greater psychological wellbeing (Hayes & Ross, 1986), reduced mental decline (Netz, Wu, Becker, & Tenenbaum, 2005), and greater resistance to the effects of stress (Mersy, 1991).
Outdoor activity and mental health.
Recently, several researchers have documented a number of positive physical and psychological responses in humans from spending time in a natural environment, particularly in forested areas. Referred to by Japanese researchers as “forest bathing” (Li, et al., 2007), regular time spent in a natural environment has been shown to increase immune system competence (Park, et al., 2007) and, as well, help the body deal with the effects of stress (Li, et al.). From a psychological perspective, according to Tsunetsugu et al. (2007) who examined the psychological and physiological responses of 12, male university students, in a natural environment participants experienced significantly greater scores (in comparison to testing in an urban environment) on measures of calmness, comfort, and mental refreshment. This change was also mirrored in lowered physiological indicators of stress, such as reduced heart rate, lesser heart-rate variability, decreased blood pressure, and lower salivary cortisol levels. Likewise, Plante et al. (2007) have shown that, compared to indoor exercising, outdoor-based exercising (among 88 female university students) was associated with a significantly greater level of exercise-related enjoyment and psychological wellbeing.
Importantly, Li et al. (2008) have shown that, whilst these positive health effects are notable in a forested environment (and, potentially, on a pleasant university campus), they are distinctly absent in an industrialised urban setting. With growing numbers of people living in urban environments, and the likely lack of access to outdoor environments for many of these people, the psychological health benefits of outdoor-based lifestyle activities might be of increasing importance. Interestingly, some researchers (e.g., Plante, Cage, Clements, & Stover, 2006) have suggested that indoor exercising with the aid of computer-based simulations (such as virtual reality programmes) might partially reproduce the psychological benefits of outdoor-based activities. Unfortunately, this technology is still rare and expensive; at least in the short to medium-term, outdoor-based lifestyle activities remain simpler and cheaper to access.
Conclusions and Recommendations
It has been argued that the marketing stereotypes surrounding the supposed “extreme sports”, and the reasons proposed for participation (by both marketers and researchers) are largely false. In fact, the myth of the “adrenaline junkie” appears to be little more than popular fiction. There are a wide variety of types and levels of participation in the various lifestyle activities, of which only a few can be described as extreme. In the rare (based on overall participation rates) instances of elite participation (in which there is, arguably, a greater hazard) there is substantial evidence that expert participants mediate the risk of injury or incident by reducing their hazardous exposure. As such, the distinction between perceived and actual risk, as mediated by exposure to hazard, needs to be more comprehensively addressed by researchers. Assumptions about risk without assessing either hazard, or actual negative outcomes (such as injury), appears to have limited much of the research on lifestyle activities to the investigation of risk exposure which, as has been shown, is a poor predictor of participation. Instead, participation motives are most likely complex and multifactorial, including the desire for fulfilling experiences, as well as better physical health and increased psychological wellbeing.
Whilst the present paper has covered a variety of topics, it was not possible to review the area exhaustively, especially with regards alternative motives for participation in lifestyle activities. One area that has been neglected is that of socialisation as a motive for lifestyle activity involvement, undoubtedly an important factor in lifestyle activity participation. It would be useful to see a comprehensive integration of social and psychological perspectives regarding lifestyle activity participation elsewhere in the literature.
To conclude, in comparison to conventional types of sport and exercise, the lifestyle activities have been poorly researched, with the majority of scholarly activity focusing on areas, such as risk taking and sensation seeking, that do not describe or explain participation motives adequately. As well, whilst there is evidence that non-urban activity is physically and psychologically beneficial, this information remains nonspecific, and should be clarified. In this vein, the possibility that popular lifestyle activities limited to urban environments (e.g., parcours, skating) might also result in a positive impact or potential benefits requires investigation. Lastly, future researchers should focus on determining to what extent participation in lifestyle activities actually increases psychological wellbeing and life satisfaction, especially as a function of level, intensity, and type of participation; as well as in relation to the sex and age of the participant. Moreover, these findings should be compared to equivalent samples taken from those who participate in conventional sports and other popular recreational activities, in order to determine whether lifestyle activity participation is in any way superior in increasing overall wellbeing.
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