OBESITY CONCERNS: How Team Sports Can Help Your Child
New Study Cites Team Sports as an Effective Weapon
Against Childhood Obesity
By Doug Abrams
In 2001, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a thoughtful 60-page report warning that among adults and children alike, “overweight and obesity . . . have reached epidemic proportions in the United States.” This week’s column focuses on a new 2012 study that reinforces the report’s troubling findings concerning children.
Dr. Satcher did not use the word “epidemic” lightly because 13% of children and adolescents were overweight in 2001, and because the number of overweight adolescents had tripled since 1980. With national trends moving in the wrong direction, he stressed that sedentary lifestyles learned early can last into adulthood: “[A]dolescents who are overweight are at high risk of becoming overweight or obese adults.”
“Overweight” and “obesity” are two essentially preventable conditions that identify “ranges of weight that are greater than what is generally considered healthy for a given height.” Both conditions generally result from such causes as excess calorie consumption or inadequate physical activity. 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.
The Surgeon General’s report fell on deaf ears because national trends among children are still moving in the wrong direction today. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 17% of children over the age of two (about 12.5 million children) are now obese.
“Increase Team Sport Participation Among All Students”
Dr. Satcher warned that unless national trends do an about-face, “overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking.” With this sobering recipe for ill health as lifestyles have grown increasingly sedentary in recent years, the August 2012 issue of Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) features a new study conducted by researchers led by Dr. Keith M. Drake of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Lebanon, New Hampshire. The study measures the potentially positive effects on child health of various forms of physical exercise, including active commuting to school (such as by walking or biking), regular participation in school physical education classes, and participation in team sports.
Dr. Drake and his team found that active commuting to school has some residual positive effect on a student’s body weight, but that participation in high school physical education classes does not. But there is more. The researchers also found that “[t]eam sports participation 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.”
The researchers’ recommendation? “Obesity prevention programs should consider strategies to increase team sport participation among all students.”
Good News and Bad News
Like earlier studies, the new Pediatrics study demonstrates the great potential that youth sports programs hold for sustaining good health in America’s children. But these studies should also stimulate concern about why these programs fall short of this potential year after year.
Thirty to thirty-five million children — nearly half of all American youngsters — join at least one organized sports program each year. At some time before they turn eighteen, almost all children have some experience with organized sports. Outside the home and schools, no other activity touches the lives of so many children from coast to coast.
About 70% of these youngsters, however, quit playing organized sports by the time they turn thirteen, and nearly all quit by the time they turn fifteen. Indeed the dropout rate begins accelerating as early as age ten. When researchers ask youngsters why they quit, 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 high adult-induced dropout rate means that the nation squanders opportunities to provide healthy athletic activity for millions of children, and to teach them the value of a lifestyle rich in physical activity. Athletics, after all, can do nothing for a child who has been cut or who has quit.
The damage is too often permanent because, as Dr. Satcher intimated, many children leave youth sports with their self-esteem so tattered that they despise athletics and avoid participating for the rest of their lives, even in such invigorating carryover sports as swimming, bicycling and jogging. Lingering emotional scars can endure well into middle age and beyond, a substantial deprivation in light of the demonstrated health benefits of lifelong physical exercise.
Serving the National Interest
What can be done to help assure that youth sports programs meet the “major public health concerns” identified by the Surgeon General? In their own households, adults can “keep the fires burning” with positive reinforcement that makes continued participation in sports fun and fulfilling for their own children. In the greater community, adults can stop behaving in ways that lead children to quit in droves before their time, and can maintain sports programs that assure equal opportunity for all youngsters who wish to play, including inner-city youths who often find diminished outlets for sports. (Last year I wrote a three-part column, linked in the sources below, that describes how a community can make sports available to all children who wish to play.)
The Surgeon General’s report and the recent Pediatrics study remind us that when communities churn out bumper crops of athletic dropouts year after year, adults disserve the national interest by jeopardizing the public health.
[Sources: U.S, Dep’t of Health and Human Services, The Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity 2001; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Overweight and Obesity, Data and Statistics (2012),
; 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); “Achieving Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports (Part I) -- The ‘Power of the Permit’” --
; “Achieving Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports (Part II): The ‘Child Impact Statement’” --
; “Achieving Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports (Part III): Reform and Resistance” --