Organized Sports Don’t Give Kids Enough Exercise

Study Shows Most Kids in Organized Sports Aren’t Getting Recommended Amount of Activity

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on December 06, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 6, 2010 -- Just because young people participate in organized sports like baseball, soccer, or softball doesn’t necessarily mean they get as much exercise as recommended by physical activity guidelines, a study shows.

And because they may not be getting the exercise they need, the odds increase that many of these youngsters may become overweight or obese.

Kids participating in organized sports sometimes spend a lot of time listening to coaches and others, rather than running and playing, the researchers say.

According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the Department of Health and Human Services, children and adolescents aged 6 to 17 should get 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Most of the hour should consist of moderate or vigorous intensity aerobic activity.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends youth sports as a means of obtaining physical activity as well as social benefits,” the researchers write. “Although intensity values in the moderate to vigorous range are obtained while playing common youth sports, it is not clear how much physical activity is provided by youth sports practices, as much of the time may be inactive, such as receiving verbal instruction and waiting for turns.”

Measuring Activity Levels of Young Athletes

With a team of colleagues, Desiree Leek of San Diego State University and the University of California-San Diego documented the physical activity of 200 kids ages 7 to14 who played on 29 soccer, baseball, or softball teams.

The young athletes each wore devices called accelerometers, which measure physical activity. Also, parents filled out surveys providing information about demographics of the family, as well as details about the children’s ages, height, weight, and ethnic background.

Among the study’s key findings:

  • 24% of participants met the 60-minute government recommendation for physical activity.
  • Fewer than 10% of kids 11 to 14 and fewer than 2% of girl softball players achieved the guideline.
  • Lengths of practices ranged from 40 to 130 minutes for soccer and 35 to 217 minutes for baseball or softball.
  • Kids who participated were on average moderately to vigorously active for 45.1 minutes for 46.1% of the time spend in practice.
  • Players of soccer, which involves more running, were active for an average of 13.7 more minutes with 10.6% more practice time spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity than baseball or softball players.
  • Boys were active for 10.7 more minutes than girls and spend 7.8% more practice time in moderate to vigorous activity than girls.
  • Kids ages 7 to 10 spent seven more minutes and 5.8% more of their practice time in moderate to vigorous physical activity, compared to kids 11 to 14.

Downtime During Practice

Significantly, players in youth sports spent an average of a half hour being inactive during each practice, the researchers say.

“Thus, there clearly are opportunities to increase physical activity in youth sports,” they write. “Based on current findings, it appears that youth sports practices are making a less-than-optimal contribution to the public health goals of increasing physical activity and preventing childhood obesity.”

The researchers say that the health effects of youth sports could be improved by adopting policies that ensure that children get sufficient physical activity during practices.

The suggested policies include:

  • Coaches and parents could stress participation over competition.
  • Teams should be available for kids at different levels of skills.
  • Lower-income youths should be able to participate more in sports activities if organizations devised sliding fees.
  • Youth sports coaches and parents should take steps to increase frequency of practices, make short seasons longer, and use devices such as pedometers or accelerometers to make sure physical activity during practices and games is sufficient.

Russel R. Pate, PhD, and Jennifer O’Neill, PhD, MPH, of the University of South Carolina, write in an editorial that more research is needed to find ways to make sure kids get more exercise and to make it more vigorous. And this should be done not just in sports, but for kids who take part in other physical activities, such as ballet, tap dancing, rock climbing, cycling, canoeing, and kayaking.

“We need to learn ways in which the doses of physical activity provided during youth sports and activity programs can be most effectively increased by modifying the manner in which the practices and contests are conducted,” Pate and O’Neill write.

They say more informal physical activity should be encouraged in homes and neighborhoods, and that to reduce obesity and improve health, physical activity for youths should be stressed more by parents and teachers.

“Available evidence indicates that sports programs can make an important contribution, but probably cannot be the singular solution to this challenge,” Pate and O’Neill write.

Show Sources


News release, San Diego State University.

Leek, D. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, January 2011.

Pate, R. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, January 2011.

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