Last month, after weeks of deliberation, my husband and I signed up our 9-year-old son for an intensive soccer program that involves two practices and one game each week, year-round. He loves soccer, so it’s not like we’re playing the role of overbearing parents and forcing him to do something he dislikes. But for our family — he’s just one of three kids — it felt like a major commitment.
The practices will wreak havoc on our family dinner hour, which parents are repeatedly told is important for myriad reasons, and the weekend games will take away from family outings. On practice days, he’ll have just enough time to get off the school bus, grab a snack and strap on his shin guards before heading out. But for a boy who loves to eat, this felt like the right decision. At least he’ll be getting substantial exercise three days a week.
Our rationale was upheld by a new study published Monday in Pediatrics showing that teens who play on multiple sports teams reduce their risk of obesity. The kids who saw the greatest advantage played on three or more teams.
Multiple sports teams — for multiple kids? I have no idea how parents manage that in reality. In theory, though, it makes sense. The more active you are, the more calories you burn. (Of course, a very popular TIME cover story, “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin,” found that’s not the whole story; you may burn more calories but many people end up more than making up for it by overeating.) In any case, the Pediatrics study identified a direct association between physical activity and trimmer teens.
Researchers at Dartmouth College surveyed 1,718 New Hampshire and Vermont high school students about different forms of physical activity. They looked at their participation on athletics teams, their physical education (P.E.) classes in school and whether they “actively commuted” to school on foot or bicycle; they also asked about their height and weight and “sedentary time” spent watching television or hanging out on the computer. In addition, they controlled for teens’ previous weight status, giving researchers more confidence that playing sports is affecting teens’ tendency to be overweight as opposed to the possibility that obese kids are simply less likely to play sports.
They found that teens who were active on at least three sports teams in the previous year were 27% less likely to be overweight and 39% less likely to be obese compared with teens who hadn’t joined any sports teams. Active commuting didn’t impact teens’ likelihood of being overweight but it did lessen their chance of obesity, while P.E. classes didn’t seem to make a difference in either category.
The key, researchers concluded, was that participating in sports teams routinely involves moderate to strenuous exertion, leading them to recommend team sports as a tool to reduce obesity rates. In fact, Drake estimated that the rate of obesity among teens would decrease by 26% if all high schoolers were to play at least two sports.
In the study sample, 17.4% of teens played on one sports team, 18.6% on two and 35.3% on three or more, for a total of 71% of teens who played on at least one sports team. The average in the U.S. is closer to 60%, says Keith Drake, a postdoctoral research fellow in epidemiology at Dartmouth whose dissertation inspired the published study. “Our best chance to keep people physically active is to find an activity they really enjoy, and organized sports teams are our best shot at this,” says Drake.
Still, organized sports alone are not the answer. In the study, about 40% of teens who didn’t play sports were overweight or obese compared with 20% of teens who played three or more sports, 25% of kids who played two sports and 31% of kids who played one sport. Team sports appeared to have the biggest impact when researchers focused solely on teens’ risk of obesity: just 7% of teens who played three or more sports were obese, along with 9% of kids who played two sports and 16% of kids who played one sport, compared with 21% who played no team sports at all.
And what of the huge time commitments involved in team sports? Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., agrees that today’s children have — pardon the pun — a full plate. “There are so many conflicting messages,” she says. “We’re telling families to eat dinner together. We’re telling kids to be active but don’t be too active because that’s too stressful.”
What’s most important is for parents to be in tune with their children. “There won’t be one right solution that fits every family,” says Cadieux. “Some kids will manage to participate in a few different things and others just one thing. You need to recognize whether your child is having fun or getting stressed out, as well as whether it’s so stressful on the parent that it’s making it not enjoyable for the child.”
Even Drake acknowledges the toll that participation in lots of team sports can take. “It complicates people’s lives,” he says. “But it’s for a good cause.”