On the Sideline

Are Organized Sports Enough for Childhood Fitness?

As the prevalence of obesity has grown, so has our fixation on programmed physical activity. If you’ve got the money and the time, odds are your kids are participating in youth sports. But are organized sports enough to ensure childhood fitness?

A Study in Homeschooled Youth

A new study of homeschooled youth suggests that organized sports alone may not be enough.  Laura Kabiri and colleagues studied the physical fitness of 100 children and their participation in organized sports. Though some studies have found a positive association between school sport participation and fitness, Kabiri did not.

In fact, they found that sports participation predicted no better fitness for this sample of homeschool youth.

All of this research has a fundamental issue. It’s observational. So it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that fitness might be a factor in a child choosing to participate in sports. Which comes first? The fitness or the participation?

Sport Participation Doesn’t Guarantee Physical Activity

The unfortunate truth is that organized sports can involve a certain amount of activity that’s not especially physical. Everyone one is familiar with sitting on the sidelines.  The Aspen Institute tells us that more children are engaging in sport activities, but fewer are highly active in those sports.

This problem is hardly inevitable. One study showed that coaches can be coached to help raise the level of physical activity in a girls’ basketball program.

However, we cannot afford to overlook the importance of routine, unstructured, physical play. A recent consensus statement tells us:

Access to active play in nature and outdoors – with its risks – is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings – at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.

Participating in sports has plenty of benefits. But active, unstructured play is the very essence of childhood.

Click here for the study of homeschooled children and here for perspective from the American Academy of Pediatrics on the power of childhood play.

On the Sideline, photograph © Jim Larrison / flickr

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February 16, 2019