Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual. activity. John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States
I think exercise tests us in so many ways, our skills, our hearts, our ability to bounce back after setbacks. This is the inner beauty of sports and competition, and it can serve us all well as adult athletes. Peggy Fleming, Olympic Gold Medal Skater
Engaging in sport and physical activities, including physical fitness activities, plays a significant role in promoting health and wellness among children and adolescents. Not only does such activity help improve the physical fitness and health of children and youth, but also it is an integral strategy for stemming childhood obesity—a critical health priority for our nation.
The health benefits of physical activity are well documented. Health benefits that result from regular participation in physical activity include reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome and improving metabolic health in youth.14 Such activity also benefits musculoskeletal health. “Compared to those who are inactive, physically active youth have higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness and stronger muscles. They also typically have lower body fatness and their bones are stronger. Youth who are regularly active also have a better chance of a healthy adulthood” (p. 15).14 Physical activity through sport makes it less likely that risk factors for chronic diseases, such as heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis, will develop later in life.
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released its 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: Be Active, Healthy, and Happy, representing the first major review of the science on the benefits of physical activity in more than a decade. It describes what has been learned through research on physical activity and health and provides information about how physical activity and sport promote physical health and well-being—emphasizing that a range of physical activity is best and that more activity leads to more benefits. The guidelines also note that little progress has been made in increasing levels of physical activity for too many children. Inactivity remains high among American children, adolescents, and adults.
Part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity notes that combined with healthy eating, physical activity is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle and can help prevent many chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Although risk factors for these diseases can begin early in life, adopting regular habits of physical activity can reduce them. According to the task force, “Physical activity helps control weight, builds lean muscle, reduces fat, and contributes to a healthy functioning cardiovascular system, hormonal regulatory system, and immune system; promotes strong bone, muscle and joint development; and decreases the risk of obesity” (p. 65).15 The Task Force also emphasizes that participation in sports has been associated with higher levels of participation in overall physical activity. In addition, adolescents who participate in greater levels of physical activity are less likely to smoke, or they smoke fewer cigarettes.16
Girls who engage in sport improve their health and well-being in both the short term and the long term. Fitness, maintaining a healthy weight, and stress reduction are among the immediate health benefits. In the long term, physical activity in youth is a key preventive factor for heart disease, cancer, obesity, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease and dementias in later life.8,17,18
The Potential of Sport in Stemming Childhood Obesity
Over the past quarter century, the rate of obesity has doubled in the U.S. youth population. The percentage of overweight teens has tripled.19 One in three American children is overweight or obese by third grade.20 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the immediate and long-term health effects of obesity on youth include a greater likelihood of developing risk factors for cardiovascular disease and being at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems. Obese youth also are more likely to become overweight or obese as adults. Thus, as adults they will be at greater risk for developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several kinds of cancer, and osteoarthritis.20
Sport and physical activity play a critical role in stemming the rise of obesity. Scientific evidence indicates that participating in physical activity helps people maintain a stable weight over time, although how much physical activity results in weight stability varies across individuals.14 In addition, “regular physical activity also helps control the percentage of body fat in children and adolescents” (p. 12).14 Moreover, “exercise training in overweight or obese youth can improve body composition by reducing overall levels of fatness as well as abdominal fatness. Research studies report that fatness can be reduced by regular physical activity of moderate to vigorous intensity 3 to 5 times a week, for 30 to 60 minutes” (p. 18).14
In a large natural experiment, Kaestner and Xu21 studied the effects of Title IX and sport participation on girls’ physical activity and weight. They examined the association between girls’ participation in high school sports and weight, body mass, and body composition during the 1970s when girls’ sports participation dramatically increased as a result of Title IX. They found that increased participation by girls in high school sports was associated with an improvement in weight and body mass, demonstrating a beneficial effect on the health of adolescent girls.
As important as it is to encourage children to play sport for its contribution to disease prevention and health promotion, it is just as important to help overweight and obese children gain the confidence to start or re-enter sport. Faith et al.22 studied reasons that children cite for either playing sport or remaining sedentary. Children between fifth and eighth grade, particularly girls, are highly sensitive to weight criticism during physical activity. According to this study, “children who are the targets of weight criticism by family and peers have negative attitudes toward sports and report reduced physical activity levels, although these relationships may be buffered by certain coping skills” (p. 23).22
Team-Up for Youth (Playing Well) stresses that obese and overweight children are more likely to receive support and benefit from opportunities for physical activity in a structured and supervised environment, such as organized sport, versus physical education classes. Moreover, “once they begin to participate, even those who had believed themselves to be incompetent at sports are more likely to find enjoyment and continue to participate beyond the program” (p. 2).16
The lack of sufficient opportunities for youth to participate in organized sport robs them of the lifelong benefits of improved physical and mental health. Low-income communities often lack the social infrastructure to support organized after-school and summer sports programs without assistance. These limitations often contribute to these youths’ unhealthy eating and other risk behaviors.16
Potential Side Effects of Sport
The positive effects of sport on self-image of competence, mastery, fitness, and healthy weight also may create pressures leading to disordered eating or addiction to exercise for weight loss or to achieve what is perceived as an ideal body. The popular culture tends to emphasize thinness rather than fitness. Girls, unlike boys, tend to associate dissatisfaction about body image with self-esteem.23 This can either motivate girls to engage in more physical activity, for the aesthetic benefits (i.e., for “impression management” rather than for physical and mental health benefits), or to avoid the judgments of others about physique by avoiding situations in which one might be more exposed. The result for too many girls is a vicious circle. Poor body image leads to lack of participation in sport and physical activity, which then can compound poor body image. At the other end of the spectrum, studies have shown that girls participating in aesthetic- or appearance-oriented sports (e.g., gymnastics, figure skating) report higher levels of concern about weight and body image than do nonparticipants, even at ages five to seven.24 This concern can even translate into eating disorders.25
Research on health risks for both girls and boys associated with overtraining, overuse, and injury prevention is emerging.
Sport injuries are generally more sport specific than gender specific, but girls and women may face anatomical alignment and hormonal and neuromuscular risk factors.26
The Lasting Positive Health Impact of Sport
As children reach adolescence, they typically reduce their physical activity, and many drop out of sport (see later discussion), thus forfeiting the health benefits that are derived from physical activity and the building of a foundation for lifelong, health-promoting physical activity.14
Children who are physically active, in particular through involvement in sport, are more likely to stay active into their teen years and adulthood than are children who do not play sport.27 Even among children ages three to four, those who are less active tend to remain less active after age three than most of their peers. Perkins et al.27 found that adolescents who are highly active in sport are eight times more likely to participate in sport and physical fitness activities as young adults than adolescents who participate in sport very little.
The Sport in America Report showed that most adults who play a sport began playing it in childhood. Nearly three-fifths of the sports that adults currently play were started in grade school or middle school, and four-fifths began in high school or earlier. Likewise, 82 percent of the sports played by athletes under the auspices of an NGB were started in high school or earlier.
Team-Up for Youth16 reports that adults are more likely to be physically active during their free time if they participated in organized sport as children. Alfano et al.28 studied whether a history of participating in sport in childhood and youth was related to adult obesity and physical activity among women. They found that a history of sport participation predicted lower levels of overweight and obesity and higher sport activity levels as adults. These benefits pay off in lowered risk for heart disease.
Such findings validate the position that participation in sport may lay the foundation for adult health and health behaviors and that sport participation could be an important component of obesity prevention and other wellness programs. This potential highlights the need for parents, educators, and coaches to become positive role models and to be involved actively in the promotion of sport and physical activity and fitness in children and adolescents.
Psychological and Social Benefits of Playing True Sport