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DOI: 10.2196/33322


BACKGROUND: With rates of childhood obesity continually increasing, effective physical activity and nutrition interventions are needed. Formative research is used to tailor interventions to different cultural and geographic contexts and can be vital in adapting intervention strategies in the face of significant disruptive circumstances (like COVID-19).

OBJECTIVE: We conducted formative research via in-person and web-based focus groups among middle schoolers and parents to better understand the facilitators and barriers to physical activity and fruit and vegetable consumption and to inform the design of a large intervention for a low-income, urban setting in the US Midwest.

METHODS: We conducted 2 phases of qualitative focus groups with parents (n=20) and 6th-9th grade middle schoolers (n=23). Phase 1 was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019, and phase 2 was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020. Focus groups were transcribed and thematically coded using the Dedoose software.

RESULTS: The main facilitators of physical activity prior to the pandemic included the opportunity to have fun, peer influence, competition (for some), and incentives, while the main barriers to physical activity were time constraints and social discomfort. The main facilitators of eating fruits and vegetables included parental influence, preparation technique, and convenience, while barriers included dislike of vegetables, time constraints, and preparation or freshness. During the pandemic, facilitators of physical activity remained the same, while additional barriers to physical activity such as lack of motivation and limited time spent outside of the home were reported. For fruit and vegetable consumption, both facilitators and barriers remained the same for both time periods. Additionally, for some participants, the pandemic offered an opportunity to offer more fruits and vegetables to middle schoolers throughout the day.

CONCLUSIONS: Some themes identified were common to those reported in previous studies, such as peer influence on physical activity and parental influence on fruit and vegetable consumption. Novel themes such as lack of motivation to be active and limited time outside the home helped improve intervention adaptation, specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic. The continuity of formative research after a major unexpected change in the intervention context can be essential in targeting areas of an intervention that can be retained and those that need to be adjusted.

Journal Title

JMIR Form Res





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COVID-19; adolescents; barrier; exercise; focus group; formative research; intervention; interview; nutrition; physical activity; qualitative; teenager; urban; young adult


This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work, first published in JMIR Formative Research, is properly cited. The complete bibliographic information, a link to the original publication on, as well as this copyright and license information must be included.

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