Backing up what we all know intuitively with quality research in a quality peer-reviewed journal is always nice: Participation in organized sports by school age children is indeed a predictor of physical activity in adulthood, according to a December 2003 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the journal published by the American College of Sports Medicine.
â€œIf you provide and encourage activity for children and give them skills, this amounts to teaching them for a lifetime,â€ lead author Allen Kraut, M.D., an associate professor at the University of Manitoba, Canada, told SNEWS. â€œIt's like teaching kids a musical instrumentâ€”naturally they will be more inclined to play it as adults. That's really the take-home message here.â€
Researchers analyzed results from the Cardiovascular Occupational Risk Factors in Israel Study (CORDIS), which was conducted from 1985-1987 and consisted of questionnaires from more than 3,500 men employed in 21 various industrial settings in Israel. Physical activity in childhood was defined as participation in organized, extracurricular team and non-team sports for at least one year. Physical education classes did not count, as they are part of nearly all school curricula in Israel.
Adult leisure time activity included things like sports (soccer and basketball are the most popular there), dancing and walking; folks that reported such activities for at least 30 minutes once a week were considered active.
Those of us fitness nuts may think that 30 minutes once a week sounds pretty minimal, particularly compared to the recommendations of 30-minutes of moderate activity on most days of the week from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Kraut said that the researchers specifically did not use this more stringent activity standard because it reduced the eligible sample size from 20.8 percent of the population (766 men) to 2.5 percent (93 men), which hindered statistical reliability.
â€œWe did look at the data with the generous and more restrictive definitions of physical activity, and in both cases, sports participation as a child was associated with greater activity levels as an adult,â€ Kraut said.
With the lower activity standard, among those who participated in sports as children, the odds were 3.5 times higher that they would be physically active as adults; the stricter standard had a higher correlation of 4.8.
Intuitive you say? The problem is research on this topic has resulted in contradictory findings, with some studies showing only a low to moderateâ€”and some even a negativeâ€”association between childhood and adult physical activity levels. But Kraut insists we should forget the contradictions and just focus on getting kids moving.
â€œThe literature isn't as clear as you would like in this area, which is partly why we did this study with such a long-running data set,â€ Kraut told us, adding that he conducted the research while on sabbatical in Israel. â€œRegardless, we shouldn't necessarily continue to invest heavily in studying the association between activity and healthâ€”we know that already. Rather, we should be looking for ways to encourage activity among kids as well as adults.
â€œI think encouraging physical activity in schools, pushing and making it easier to join teams in the community, and ultimately making sports accessible and fun would be helpful,â€ Kraut said.
Another recent study found what we've also heard before: Kids who are active tend to grow up to be healthier adults with less chance of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. This comes from a article in the Journal of the American Medical Association which followed for 15 years 4,400 men and women who were given a treadmill test when they were between the ages of 18 and 30. "People can't wait until middle age to protect themselves," said lead author Mercedes Carnethon of Northwestern University in Chicago. The findings of the study, said Teri Manolio of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, "confirm what common sense has always told us -- lack of fitness in youth is not a good thing for later life."
SNEWS View: OK, we'll say it again â€“ It's not about getting kids on home gyms or ellipticals, it's about creating a fitness habit, developing an appreciation for general activity, and promoting overall health â€“ all of which will more likely lead to the same people as adults working out in some way. Those adult workouts â€“ because of the type of busy lives we lead â€“ could likely include the use of equipment in homes or clubs at least part of the time. We'd really like to see more fitness equipment manufacturers and suppliers get behind youth fitness, perhaps even in their own communities. These efforts shouldn't only support equipment in schools (although that's possible and a good start), but can also support programs, teachers and other needed supplies that promote activity and even health education. Although some discrepancies may exist in the nuances of scientific research, it just makes sense that if you can win kids over with activity, they are more inclined to become active adultsâ€”and potential customers to boot.