July 16, 2012 at 9:49 AM ET
Teens who play on more than one sports team during the year are far less likely to become overweight or obese, a new study suggests.
In fact, Dartmouth College researchers concluded that the obesity rate among high schoolers could be cut by more than 26 percent if all teens signed up for multiple team sports, according to the study, published today in the journal Pediatrics.
The researchers also found that kids who bike or walk to school are less likely to become obese. If every kid in the country biked or walked to school at least four days a week, then obesity could be cut by 22 percent, they reported.
“I know that coordinating schedules can be difficult in terms of getting kids to practices and games,” said study co-author Keith Drake, a post doctoral research fellow at the Hood Center for Children and Families at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.
“But it does look to us like getting kids involved in sports may be the best chance we have to get them physically active and to help them maintain a healthy body weight.”
Playing on a single team didn’t appear to have a strong effect. Still, Drake said: “Playing on one team is probably better than playing on none.”
Drake and his colleagues surveyed 1,718 New Hampshire and Vermont high school students and their parents for the new study. The new report is part of a seven-year review of adolescent health that started in 2002 and included five separate surveys of the kids and their parents.
In each survey, the kids were questioned about a variety of topics, including their diet, academic performance, weight, and time spend on physical activities. By the end of the study, most of the teens were in ninth or 10th grade.
Almost three-quarters of the teens reported playing on sports teams: 17 percent played on one team, 19 percent on two teams and 33 percent on three or more teams.
When the researchers accounted for factors such as weight at the beginning of the study, diet, gender and race, they found that the kids were much less likely to become overweight or obese if they played on two or more teams during the year.
Dr. William Stratbucker, a pediatric obesity specialist, isn’t surprised that kids needed to play more than one team sport to lower the risk of becoming obese. He said that teens who participate in only one sport shouldn’t consider themselves active.
“The problem is that families often assume that if they put their kid into a soccer program that that is enough,” said Stratbucker, an associate professor at Michigan State University and director of the Healthy Weight Center at the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich. “But that’s only eight weeks a year. What about the other 44 weeks a year when they’re going about their same nutrition habits. Maybe a few weeks in the sport they’ll maintain their weight, but they will gain weight during the other weeks.”
Kids need to be doing activities all year long that will raise their heart and respiration rates, he said.
Stratbucker is particularly concerned about girls who seem to be eschewing sports more and more these days.
“There seems to be a cultural expectation of girls now,” he said. “They’re being encouraged to do things that don’t cause them to breathe hard or work up a sweat.”
Getting kids to sign up for sports may not be a panacea, Stratbucker said, “but I applaud the authors of the study for worrying about this issue and getting the discussion going,” he added.
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