A Timely Reminder From Britain About How Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports Enhances Public Health
By Doug Abrams
A survey published last week reports that only about half of the nation’s seven-year-olds engage in sufficient physical exercise each day to stay healthy. Only 63% of boys and 38% of girls achieve the recommended one hour or more of daily “moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity.” On average, boys and girls in this age group remain sedentary for six to seven hours each day, a bulk of their waking time. The survey’s researchers warn that inactive children may develop habits that encourage inactivity throughout adulthood.
More bad news about today’s American kids, whose increasingly sedentary lifestyle has helped produce a national epidemic of pediatric obesity? Not this time.
Last week’s survey, published in the peer-reviewed BMJ Open journal, concerns children in another western industrialized nation, the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Because the UK survey tracks public health risks and trends that are also apparent here in the United States, the survey’s findings and recommendations remain instructive to Americans.
When it comes to promoting physical exercise among children and adolescents, Britain and the United States share common problems that invite common solutions. Britons can learn from the American experience, and Americans can learn from the British.
In 2001, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher reported problems that resembled those reported in last week’s UK survey. Thirteen percent of American children and adolescents were overweight, a number that had tripled since 1980. Similar to the UK researchers, Dr. Satcher warned that “adolescents who are overweight are at high risk of becoming overweight or obese adults.” Obesity and overweight both qualify, in Dr. Satcher’s words, as “major public health concerns” because they can lead to increased rates of coronary heart disease, diabetes, several forms of cancer, and other chronic health conditions.
Trends in the United States continue moving in the wrong direction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now reports that approximately 17% of American children over the age of two (about 12.5 million children) are obese.
The United Kingdom researchers urge action that “increases time spent in more intense [physical activity] and decreases the time spent being sedentary.” Potential solutions, they write, may include increased participation in sports, walking to school, preserving and increasing urban green spaces where children can play, and improving perceptions of community safety to encourage parents to permit their children more outdoor play.
In the August 2012 issue of Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics), a study measured such potential solutions as walking to school, participating regularly in school physical education classes, and playing team sports. The researchers found that walking to school has some residual positive effect on a student’s body weight, but that participation in high school physical education classes does not.
The Pediatrics researchers found that playing team sports had “the strongest and most consistent inverse association with weight status.” The study estimates that overweight and obesity would “decrease by 11% and 26% respectively, if adolescents played on at least 2 sports teams per year.”
“Obesity prevention programs,” the Pediatrics researchers recommended, “should consider strategies to increase team sport participation among all students.”
Implementing Common Solutions
The Pediatrics study reaffirms the great potential that youth sports programs hold for sustaining children’s health and well-being in the United States, Britain and elsewhere. But the study should also stimulate inquiry about why so many of these programs fall short of this potential year after year.
About thirty million American children join at least one organized sports program each year, and nearly all children have some experience with organized sports before they turn 18. Outside the home and schools, no other activity touches the lives of so many children from coast to coast.
Some segments of the American population, however, remain chronically under-served by community youth sports systems, including girls, inner city youth, poor youth, youth who may not demonstrate sufficient athletic talent when they are in elementary school, and youth with disabilities. Among children who do play sports, about 70% quit before turning thirteen, and nearly all quit before turning fifteen. Indeed the dropout rate begins accelerating as early as age ten. When researchers ask youngsters why they quit playing, the reasons given most often are that practice sessions and games stopped being fun because parents and coaches imposed too much pressure to win, yelled at them for making errors, and cut or benched less talented players.
The inequities that mark access to youth sports, and the high adult-induced dropout rate, mean that the United States squanders opportunities to provide healthy athletic activity for millions of children, and to teach them the value of a lifestyle rich in physical activity throughout adulthood. Athletics, after all, can do nothing for a child who is excluded, cut from the team, or induced to quit.
Jeopardizing the Public Health
What can be done to help assure that youth sports programs in the United States and the United Kingdom meet the major public health concerns identified by the U.S. Surgeon General, the recent Pediatrics study, and last week’s UK survey? First of all, communities and national and state sports governing bodies can take “equal opportunity” more seriously by reaching out to under-served segments of the youth population that often find only diminished outlets for sports. In their own households, parents can “keep the fires burning” with positive reinforcement that makes continued participation in sports fun and fulfilling for their children. Finally, parents and coaches can stop behaving in ways that lead so many children to quit in droves before their time.
The Surgeon General’s report, the recent Pediatrics study, and last week’s UK study remind us that communities jeopardize the public health when they exclude broad segments of the youth population, and then churn out bumper crops of athletic dropouts year after year. Until adults stop taking children’s sports away from children, we will all be the losers.
[Sources: Lucy J. Griffiths et al., How Active Are Our Children? Findings From the Millennium Cohort Study, BMJ Open (Aug. 2013); U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services, The Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity 2001; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Overweight and Obesity, Data and Statistics (2012), http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html; Keith M. Drake et al., Influence of Sports, Physical Education, and Active Commuting to School on Adolescent Weight Status, Pediatrics, vol. 130, p. e296 (Aug. 2012)]