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Why sport might not actually be keeping you healthy

Sport is an engrained part of Australian culture. We love watching it almost as much as we love participating in it, and there are a multitude of benefits to getting involved.

However, despite having the highest organised sports participation among young people internationally, Australia is still struggling to get a handle on our rising obesity rates. Children and adolescents in 2014-15 were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than those of the same age 20 years earlier.

But as the government funnels hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting sport for young people, the question must be asked: is organised sport actually keeping us healthy?

Alfred Deakin Professor and Co-Director of Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Jo Salmon, explains the answer is more complicated than you think.

‘Of course it’s important to acknowledge that sports participation can lead to numerous psychological, social and physical health benefits,’ she says.

‘But it is not the silver bullet solution to reverse Australia’s ballooning overweight and obesity trends in young people.’

How much does organised sport contribute to your daily activity?

Seven minutes. That’s how much more moderate to vigorous physical activity you’ll get from playing sport, compared to your friends who don’t.

This is the data collected from a world-first study lead by Dr Harriet Koorts, a research fellow in Deakin’s IPAN. Measuring the physical activity of 350 Victorian high school students using accelerometers, the study compared this data with the students’ participation in organised sport.

The physical activity guidelines state young people should be getting at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, and on average, students involved in the study were engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity for 68.6 minutes per day.

However, Dr Koorts says organised sport simply isn’t enough for adolescents to meet the physical activity guidelines.

‘Our data showed that sport participation contributed less than 4% to adolescents’ overall moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity,’ she explains.

‘This did not change when we accounted for age, sex, BMI, socioeconomic status, or the type of sport played.’

'[Sport] is not the silver bullet solution to reverse Australia’s ballooning overweight and obesity trends in young people.'

Professor Jo Salmon,
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University

Why isn’t sport the answer?

Students who played sport trained an average of 3.4 times per week, so it’s shocking to note the abysmal difference it makes.

Prof. Salmon says, ‘There is surprisingly limited evidence to suggest that sports participation outside of school hours contributes to increasing overall moderate to vigorous physical activity in youth.

‘Sport is part of the puzzle but it shouldn’t be the main driver in boosting adolescent activity,’ she says.

Dr Koorts says, ‘In 2016 Australia received the second lowest score for the proportion of young people meeting the physical activity guidelines.

‘This is because physical activity incorporates not just sport, but also play, active transport, physical education and recreation at moderate to vigorous intensities.’

Dr Koorts explains that while the government is investing in promoting participation in sports among young people, we need to consider the other pieces of the puzzle when it comes to getting moving and staying healthy.

What are the other pieces of the puzzle?

While Prof. Salmon is happy to see the government investing in keeping young Australians healthy and active, she says organised sport isn’t an effective solution alone in battling rising overweight and obesity rates.

‘Australian governments are investing hundreds of millions in sport as a way of reversing rates of physical inactivity, overweight and obesity, yet our findings show this is not necessarily the best way to get young people moving.’

Real changes can only be made through a multi-pronged approach to exercise and physical activity. Things like intervention during school hours, avoiding extended periods of sitting and encouraging incidental exercise (small forms of activity that accumulate over the day, like walking up flights of stairs or to the train station).

‘Encouraging unstructured physical activity during recess and lunchtimes is important, and research also shows that teenagers who use active transport to get to school accumulate 13 minutes more of moderate to vigorous physical activity than their peers each day,’ she says.

While you definitely shouldn’t give up sport – especially if you love it – try incorporating other kinds of physical activity in your daily life to ensure you’re doing the best for your health.

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Prof. Jo Salmon
Prof. Jo Salmon

Alfred Deakin Professor/Co-Director, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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Dr Harriet Koorts
Dr Harriet Koorts

Research Fellow (Grade 2), Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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