Team sports are great for kids from a variety of physical and social perspectives, but new research shows the cardio kick they get from such activities is nowhere near what it needs to be.
An estimated 44 million U.S. kids participate in organized sports — think baseball, softball or soccer — but just one quarter get the government-recommended amount of exercise when they show up for team practices, according to a study published online today in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Younger kids and boys fare better than tweens, teens and girls.
The government wants children and teens to chart 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, but less than half of children and just 10% of teens meet these guidelines. (More on Time.com: The Older Kids Get, The Less They Move)
The data makes even more unpalatable the daily carpool grind, carting various kids to various athletic activities. What’s the deal?
“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,” write the authors, from San Diego State University/University of California, San Diego.
The researchers looked at physical activity among 200 children ages 7 to 14 who played on 29 soccer, baseball or softball teams. The kids wore accelerometers—sensors that measure physical activity—around their waists during practices. Taken as a group, 24% of kids achieved the 60-minute physical activity recommendation during practice. But rates varied widely depending on the type of sport and the age of the athletes. For example, less than 10% of participants ages 11 to 14 and less than 2% of girl softball players met the guideline. (More on Time.com: Anxious kids? Let Them Walk to School)
The lengths of the practices fluctuated — from about half an hour to nearly four hours — but children were moderately to vigorously active during 46% of the practice time. Incidentally, soccer provided a better workout than baseball or softball: soccer players were physically active 11% more of their practice time than children playing the other sports. Boys were active 8% more of practice time than girls, as were younger kids; children ages 7 to 10 spent 6% more of practice time in moderate to vigorous physical activity than older kids.
During each practice, kids averaged 30 minutes of down time. “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,” conclude the authors.
What’s a parent — and coach — to do? The authors have plenty of suggestions: emphasizing participation over competition, encouraging low-income children to participate using sliding-scale fees, increasing practice frequency, extending short seasons, using pedometers or accelerometers to monitor physical activity periodically during practices, giving coaches strategies to increase physical activity and reminding parents to get their kids moving on non-practice days. (More on Time.com: Study: Too Few Places to Exercise)
The way some coaches handle practices could use an overhaul, says Russell Pate, professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina. Placing too much of an emphasis on skills development can lead to kids spending a significant chunk of practice idle, watching someone demonstrate a skill. “I would argue that coaches recognize that one of the most important things they can do is provide a good, heavy dose of moderate to physical activity,” says Pate.
For example, rather than give one player at a time a ball to hone a certain skill, giving each player a ball to practice simultaneously gets the whole team moving.
Still, team sports alone are not the silver bullet to ending childhood obesity. “Parents have to realize that they can’t sign up their kids for an organized sport activity and just check the box off and say, I’ve done my duty,” says Pate, who also wrote an editorial that accompanies the research. (More on Time.com: Are We Oversnacking Our Kids?)
For a child to meet the U.S. physical activity guidelines, the typical kid will have to do more than just join a team. A mix of exercise during recess, P.E. class, after school and en route — some kids are still lucky enough to walk or bike to school — is also called for.
“We have allowed our society to change in ways over the last several decades that for all intents and purposes have almost removed the demand for physical activity in our daily lives,” says Pate. (More on Time.com: Attachment Parenting: The Root of all Evil? Erica Jong Thinks So)
Consider a 10-year-old kid. A generation ago, that child would have been welcomed home after school then quickly dispatched right back outside to run around, with the admonition: Don’t come home until dinner.
But society doesn’t operate that way anymore. “We’ve got to adapt,” says Pate, who recommends parents carefully balance their children’s mix of sedentary and physical activity. “People have busy schedules, but at the same time we need to impress upon parents how important this is to their kids’ health and future.”