Sports Medicine Research: In the Lab & In the Field: A Lasting Impression: Youth Sport Participation and Healthy Habits as Adults (Sports Med Res)

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Monday, July 2, 2018

A Lasting Impression: Youth Sport Participation and Healthy Habits as Adults

Does organized sport participation during youth predict healthy habits in adulthood? A 28-year longitudinal study

Palomäki S, Hirvensalo M, Smith K, Raitakari O, Männistö S, Hutri-Kähönen N, Tammelin T. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2018;1–8: 10.1111/sms.13205

Take Home Message: Individuals who participated in youth sport, especially women, were more likely to maintain 3-4 healthy habits into adulthood.

Individuals with healthy habits (e.g. regular exercise, proper nutrition, non-smoking) have lower mortality rates and risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those who do not. If an adolescent engages in these healthy habits they tend to continue them into adulthood. It is not known whether participation in youth sports can influence healthy behaviors in adulthood. The authors of this study investigated whether participation in organized youth sport are related to healthy habits as an adult. Data were originally extracted from a national study conducted in Finland to determine cardiovascular disease risk factors. For the current study, the authors sampled 1,285 participants (669 women and 616 men), using time points in 1983 and 1986 when the participants were 9, 12, and 15 years old and 12,15, and 18 years old, respectively. To determine healthy habits in adulthood, participants were asked in 2011 (age 37, 40, 43) to self-report smoking habits, alcohol consumption, physical activity level, and intake of fruits and vegetables. Youth sport participation was defined as either regular (at least once/week) or no participation/less than once a week. The authors categorized participants into 4 groups: 
     1. actives: regular activity in 1983 and 1986
     2. dropoutsregular activity in 1983, but not in 1986 
     3. beginnersno activity in 1983 but regular activity in 1986
     4. non-activesno regular activity in either 1983 nor 1986
Among these groups, the number of healthy habits in adulthood differed. Specifically, when the number of healthy habits were split by 0-2 habits or 3-4 habits, the actives were 1.75 times more likely to have 3-4 healthy habits in adulthood than non-actives, even after adjusting for other important factors (such as, age, socioeconomic status, and presence of chronic diseases/disabilities). Active females had roughly two times greater odds for having 3-4 healthy habits compared to non-active females. When comparing active and non-active males, active males were only ~27% more likely to have 3-4 healthy habits in adulthood; but, this is unlikely a meaningful difference. Based on these results, the authors concluded that regular participation in youth sport was positively associated with increased healthy habits in adulthood and this relationship was more evident among women.

The strengths of this study lie in the time span of follow-up and large sample size. However, the authors recognized limitations related to a selection bias, participant drop-out, and use of self-reported data. It should be noted that sport participation in Finland is not sponsored by the school systems and is externally governed by national sport federations. While the results support an assertion that children who participate in sport maintain healthy habits into adulthood, we should be careful about extending these findings to other countries. In the United States, early sport-specialization appears to demonstrate a negative impact on long-term health and represents a significant area of concern for parents, coaches, clinicians, and researchers. Furthermore, only ~40% of US college graduates meet exercise guidelines, regardless of whether they were athletes or not. The results of this study indicate that regular participation in youth sport, especially among females, can lead to the development of healthy habits as an adult. Parents and coaches should seek an appropriate level of regular involvement to promote long-term athletic development across multiple sports/activities. Clinicians must consider that every patient and client contact with a youth athlete is an opportunity to provide education on developing an appropriate balance while participating. While they may be physically active on a regular basis, the importance of nutrition, rest, proper sleep, and engaging in an off-season should be emphasized so young athletes can develop more wholistic and sustainable health and wellness habits secondary to their sport activity.

Questions for Discussion: Do you think these results reflect the sport culture in Finland? Are they applicable to the United States?

Written By:  Laura McDonald
Reviewed by: Jeffrey Driban

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