Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Cutting-Edge Research: Soccer and the Battle Against Childhood Obesity

For many, interest in soccer centers around the competitive athlete. Understanding what it takes to improve ones game, step up to the next level, etc. However, for a large part of the soccer population, the competitive aspects take a back seat to other things that the sport has to offer. Improving fitness, developing friendships and simply enjoying an afternoon playing in the sun are aspect of the game that many children, teens and adults strive for. A recent study from Stanford University and the Centers for Disease Control capitalizes on these aspects of recreational soccer to show that youth soccer may have an important role in combating the growing health problem of childhood obesity.

The study examined a group of overweight fourth and fifth graders. All participants had a body mass index greater than the 95th percentile for their age (BMI is used as a measure of body size. A large BMI is indicative of being overweight or obese). The six month study placed one group of subjects in an after school program that focused on both academics and soccer. The children met 4 days per week for 150 min. The first 75 min were devoted to a homework session while the remainder of the time was spent playing and practicing soccer. So the kid received 1:15 of academics followed by 1:15 of soccer. The control group participated in a health education program rather than the soccer practices.

The soccer program was designed to promote a positive experience. It emphasized respect for self and others, inclusion, individual effort and teamwork. It also included soccer skill building and fitness improvement. Matches involved the children and often included coaches and parents.

At the end of the study, the soccer group showed interesting changes in both body type and lifestyle. There were beneficial effects on the children’s BMI and a trend towards reducing the degree of overweightness. There were also were also noticeable reductions in the time spent watching television, as well as improvements in self esteem and depression symptoms. More importantly, nearly all of the participants stated that they wanted to continue with the program after the study and many in the control group asked if they could join in. The children enjoyed playing on a sports team that included kids of similar skill and body type. Parents of the soccer group noted that the program had helped their children improve their weight, eating habits, confidence and self esteem. It seems that the key to the success of the program was emphasizing a positive and healthy environment for the kids.

It is important to remember that for a large group of those who play soccer, fitness and enjoyment is the primary goal. Soccer provides a unique combination of energy expenditure and motor coordination. It is also allows kids to develop relationships with their peers and enjoy a great deal of satisfaction. So, it is not at all surprising that researcher would find that it has a positive effect on overweight children.

This study shows that an after school soccer program designed for overweight children, can help improve kids’ fitness level, reduce the incidence of being overweight and build self confidence. The combination of exercise and promoting a positive experience seems to produce positive results. As for long term prospects, this type of program may help instill a positive lifestyle that includes exercise and eating healthy. Such an accomplishment could go a long way in combating the growing problem of both childhood and adult obesity.


Weintraub DL, Tirumalai EC, Haydel F, Fujimoto M, Fulton JE, Robinson TN (2008) Team sports for overweight children: The Stanford Sports to Prevent Obesity Randomized Trial (SPORT). Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 162:232-237.