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Exploring the Relationship Between Ethnic Identity and Physical Activity with PETE Graduate Nathan Kahaiali’i

Ethnic identity and physical activity may seem like two unrelated concepts, but for McKay School Teacher Education graduate Nathan Kahaiali’i, they are two sides of the same coin: exploring how adolescents can become confident, healthy adults. Kahaiali’i returned from Hawaii in March after researching how the strength of ethnic identity affects motivation to be physically active among island youth. This study was the culmination of Kahaiali’i’s own journey in embracing his own ethnic identity, a journey that has helped him feel more complete.

Growing up in a Latino neighborhood in Arizona, Kahaiali’i looked a lot like his Latino friends, so he assumed he was also Hispanic. It wasn’t until his family moved to Hawaii when he was six that he began to realize his true heritage as a Hawaiian.

The transition wasn’t easy for Kahaiali’i. He didn’t identify with the Hawaiians in Hawaii or the way they acted. When he arrived on Maui, “uncles and aunties whom I have no memory of meeting before were giving me hugs and kisses, or honi honi, which made me feel extremely uncomfortable, not knowing that this was the common custom of Hawaiian culture—or my culture.”

Grass with orange cones
Kahaiali'i's research grounds in Hawaii. 

Because he didn’t speak like a local Hawaiian or know how to participate in the traditional activities and customs of his people, Kahaiali’i quickly became uncomfortable in a place that was physically and emotionally new to him. Kahaiali'i is part Hawaiian, or "hapa haole".

“[In Hawaiian], hapa means half, in other words, not complete, and I definitely did not feel complete during my adolescence and into my young adult life.”

The turning point for Kahaiali’i came years later at Brigham Young University–Hawaii, where, along with studying exercise science, he took an Intro to Hawaiian Studies class. His professor taught him to appreciate Hawaiian culture and who he was, despite not feeling like a “real” Hawaiian for most of his life. 

After Kahaiali’i completed his undergraduate studies, he moved to Provo to pursue a master’s in teacher education at BYU, where his love of physical education and curiosity of Hawaiian ethnic identity came together. As he pondered his research goals, he decided to return to Hawaii to study the relationship between the strength of ethnic identity and motivation to participate in physical activity among Hawaiian adolescents.

The study followed more than 300 adolescents living in Hawaii from both private and public schools and from a variety of ethnicities. To measure the strength of their ethnic identity, Kahaiali’i had the adolescents fill out surveys responding to statements such as “I have a strong sense of belonging to my own ethnic group” or “I have often done things that will help me understand my ethnic background better.” The students’ physical activity was measured using pedometers while they played capture the flag.

As the participants competed and the scores were tallied, Kahaiali’i found interesting results: Hawaiian students embraced their ethnic identity and were more positively motivated towards physical activity in comparison to other ethnic groups.

From his research, Kahaiali’i deduced that there is a greater need for PE curriculum that is culturally grounded. When the survey data was examined, Hawaiian adolescents as a whole reported participating in less than one Hawaiian sport activity, like hula or surf. If PE teachers added traditional Hawaiian sports to the curriculum, students could feel more connected to their ethnic identities and have more desire to be physically active—something Kahaiali’i felt was missing during his own adolescence. Doing so could also help students of other ethnicities feel connected to Hawaiian culture. 

Kahaiali’i hopes to continue his research and go back to teaching. Through his research and life story, he hopes to motivate students to embrace their ethnic identities and stay active. “I now know that I don’t need to fit a stereotype in order to feel acceptance or belonging. It’s not that I have to choose between being a haole or a

Hawaiian, I just need to accept all of me instead of just half.”

Writer: Jenny Mehner
Contact: Cynthia Glad 801-422-1922