The best way to fight obesity in high school students is to increase opportunities for all teens, regardless of athletic ability, to participate in team sports and for more kids to bike and/or walk to school at least 4 times a week, say the authors of a groundbreaking new study in the journal Pediatrics.1
A telephone survey of 1718 New Hampshire and Vermont high school students and their parents found that adolescents who played on 3 sports teams or more were 27% less likely to be overweight or obese and 39% less likely to be obese compared to adolescents who did not play on any sports teams. The survey also found that teens who walked or biked to school more than 3 and 1/2 days per week were 33% less likely to be obese compared to adolescents who never walked/biked to school.
The authors suggested that the prevalence of overweight/obesity would decrease by 10.6% from 28.8% to 25.7% and the prevalence of obesity would decrease by 26.1% if all adolescents played at least 2 team sports per year, and that obesity rates would decrease by 22.1% to 10.0% if all adolescents walked/biked to school at least 4 days per week throughout the school year.
"Compared with other forms of physical activity, sports participation had the strongest, most consistent inverse relationship with elevated weight status," wrote lead study author Keith Drake of the Hood Center for Children and Families and the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. "High school sports participation typically involves regular practices and competitions, leading to consistent moderate to strenuous activity, which may explain the strength of its relationship with other forms of physical activity. Our findings supports previous research demonstrating sports were related to a substantially lower risk of both overweight/obesity and obesity."
Cutting school sports: wrong approach
Because the percentages of high school students participating in sports and who were overweight in the study were higher and lower respectively than the national averages (71.3% sports participation and 29.0% overweight/obese versus 60.3% and 34.2%), the authors suggested that their "estimates of the potential benefit of increasing sports participation would be even higher in areas with lower rates of sports participation and higher rates of overweight/obesity, as in most of the country."
"Due to shrunken school budgets, school sports have been reduced or cut in many areas," notes Drake and his colleagues. "Our findings suggest that this may exacerbate overweight/obesity rates because other forms of physical activity do not appear to be as effective in preventing excess weight among adolescents."
The bottom line: "Increasing opportunities for all adolescents, regardless of athletic ability, to participate in sports should be prioritized for obesity prevention."
1. Drake KM, Beach ML, Longacre MR, et. al. Influence of Sports, Physical Education, and Active Commuting to School on Adolescent Weight Status. Pediatrics 2012; 130(2):1-9 (doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-2898).