Dr. Jay Williams, Ph. D., is a professor of Exercise Science in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise at Virginia Tech.
It is clear that a growing health concern in the US and many other countries is the increasing incidence of obesity and related diseases. Over the past few years, the number of children and adolescents who are classified as overweight and obese has increased dramatically. Unfortunately, statistics show that these children will very likely grow up to be obese adults with a whole host of associated health issues such as hypertension, diabetes and orthopedic problems. A large contributor to this problem is the lack of regular physical activity.
Sports clubs are in a unique position to combat what is now considered a health crisis. Soccer, basketball, swimming and a host of other sports offer individuals of all ages the opportunity to engage in regular exercise through structured programs and within a social network. Sports can also help children develop skills and habits that can lead to a healthier adulthood.
Most organized sports programs offer youth players the opportunity to exercise anywhere from two to five days per week. For example, soccer practice sessions usually involve components of fitness (running), strength training (stopping, starting and cutting maneuvers) and motor skill development (ball control). Soccer also provides a social network for those involved. Whether a competitive or recreational team, players exercise together. Indeed, soccer is one of the best activities for promoting fitness in children and adolescents. Other sports offer benefits as well. Research suggests that participation in organized leisure-time activates, including sports, is associated with improved health, academic achievement and better social adjustment (Mahoney et al, 2006).
This concept can be seen on almost any field, court of pool. Young children and teens exercising, laughing and playing with their friends. At the end of the session, many are sweating and out of breath, smiling from ear to ear and asking when they can practice again. It’s this love of the sport and enjoyment for exercise that is the key to promoting fitness.
The immediate health benefits of physical activity on health are obvious. However, the real benefits of playing sports may not appear until adulthood. Research has shown us that, children and adolescents who play youth sports are far more likely to engage in physical activity as adults. They are more likely to develop a life-style that will help avoid weight gain and all of its associated problems.
Here are a few findings from the research community:
- Participation in sports clubs at young ages increases the odds of being physically active later in life by 5- to 6-fold (Aarnio et al., 2002).
- Participation in sports twice or more per week at age 14 is associated with a high level of physical activity at age 31 (Tammelin et al., 2003).
- The amount of time 35 year old spend exercising is correlated with the amount time spent in organized physical activity programs at ages 10-12 (Trudeau et al., 2004).
- Children who continue with a sports program through their adolescent years are more likely to exercise as young adults than children who drop out at an earlier age (Kjonniksen et al, 2008).
- Adolescents who participate in sports are less likely to develop metabolic syndrome (obesity, diabetes, hypertension) when they enter adulthood (Yang et al., 2009). Here, persistence seems to be the key rather than the individual skill level.
The conclusion is that the longer children participate in organized sports programs, the more likely they are to develop a habit of exercising as an adult. As a bonus, physical activity at an early age may have long-term biological effects. As Dr. Frank Booth of the University of Missouri noted, physical activity seems to alter our genetic machinery to promote health and improve physical performance.
Given this, clubs and communities are in a position to play a key role in improving the health of future adults. Based on this, the European Union has emphasized the important role that sports clubs can play in promoting life-long physical activity. They feel that the sport as a tool for promoting health and physical activity has a greater influence on children, teens and young adults that any other activity or program. They also feel that sports clubs are one of the more under-utilized pathways to a healthier lifestyle. At a time when physical education in the schools is being reduced or even eliminated, it is important for sports clubs to fill the exercise void.
A key age for developing life-long exercise habits seems to be around 15-16 years old. It is at this age that sports programs have the largest drop rate. During the mid-teen years, adolescents find more academic and social activities, many enter the part-time work force and some lose their enjoyment of the sport. If clubs can keep kids active through their teen years, the impact on their adult exercise habits is much greater.
So, what is needed to capitalize on the health promotion benefits of youth sports?
First, clubs and communities should offer programs for children of all abilities from novice to expert, from young to old. There should be opportunities for competitive athletes as well as those who “just want to get in some exercise”. Most importantly, players should develop an enjoyment for the game and an appreciation for being fit and healthy.
Second, proper facilities are needed for youth sports participation. This means investing is playing fields, gymnasia and swimming pools. It also means maintaining them in proper condition for year-round use.
Third, all programs should stress and promote the role of physical activity in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This includes emphasizing both exercise and diet in maintain one’s fitness level. Not only will these two aspects improve fitness of the recreational player but it will increase performance of the competitive athlete.
Fourth, clubs and communities should offer multiple opportunities for participation. The objective is for kids to continue participation without the program growing stale. Many participants in youth sport programs drop out around age 15-16. Offering new and exciting programs, encouraging adolescents to try a new sport will help them avoid boredom and burn out that often accompanies “doing the same thing over and over”.
The research on the topic is quite clear – participating in youth sports can have important short- and long-term health benefits. Local communities and youth sports clubs can capitalize on this and play a key role in promoting a healthy lifestyle. By offering sports programs, fostering a life-long enjoyment of exercise and proper diet, clubs and communities can help improve fitness in youth and instill habits for a healthy adulthood.
Aarnio et al. (2002) Stability of leisure-time physical activity during adolescence – a longitudinal study among 16-, 17- and 18-year-old Finnish youth. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine, Science and Sports, 12:179-185.
Kjonniksen et al (2008) Organized youth sport as a predictor of physical activity in adulthood. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine, Science and Sports, 18: 1-9.
Mahoney et al. (2006) Organized activity participation, positive youth development, and the over-scheduling hypothesis. Social Policy Report, 20:3-32 (by the Society for Research in Child Development, National Academy of Sciences).
Tammelin et al. (2003) Adolescent participation in sports and adult physical activity. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 24: 22-28.
Trudeau et al., (2004) Tracking of physical activity from childhood to adulthood. Medicine, Science and Sports in Exercise, 36: 1937-1943.
Yang X, TElam R, Hirvensalo, Viikari SJA, Raitakari (2009) Sustained participation in youth sport decreases metabolic syndrome in adulthood. International Journal of Obesity, 33: 1219-1226.