It is clear that a growing health concern in the US and many other countries is the increasing incidence of obesity and related diseases. Over the past few years, the number of children and adolescents who are classified as overweight and obese has increased dramatically. Unfortunately, statistics show that these children will very likely grow up to be obese adults with a whole host of associated health issues such as hypertension, diabetes and orthopedic problems. A large contributor to this problem is the lack of regular physical activity.
Soccer clubs are in a unique position to combat what is now considered a health crisis. Soccer offers individuals of all ages the opportunity to engage in regular exercise through structured programs and within a social network. Soccer can also help kids develop skills and habits that can lead to a healthier adulthood.
Most soccer programs offer youth players the opportunity to exercise anywhere from two to five days per week. Practice sessions usually involve components of fitness (running), strength training (stopping, starting and cutting maneuvers) and motor skill development (ball control). Soccer also provides a social network for those involved. Whether a competitive or recreational team, players exercise together. Indeed, soccer is one of the best activities for promoting fitness in children and adolescents. Also, organized leisure-time activates, including sports, is associated with improved health, academic achievement and better social adjustment (Mahoney et al, 2006).
This concept can bee seen on almost any soccer field. Young kids are exercising, laughing and playing with their friends. At the end of the session, many are sweating and out of breath, smiling from ear to ear and asking when they can practice again. It’s this love of the game and enjoyment for exercise that is the key to promoting fitness.
The immediate health benefits for young players are obvious. However, the real benefit of playing may not appear until adulthood. That is, kids who play youth sports are far more likely to engage in physical activity as adults. They are more likely to develop a life-style that will help avoid weight gain and all of its associated problems.
Here are a few findings from the research community:
Participation in sports clubs at young ages increases the odds of being physically active later in life by 5- to 6-fold (Aarnio et al., 2002).
Participation in sports twice or more per week at age 14 is associated with a high level of physical activity at age 31 (Tammelin et al., 2003).
The amount of time 35 year old spend exercising is correlated with the amount time spent in organized physical activity programs at ages 10-12 (Trudeau et al., 2004).
Children who continue with a sports program through their adolescent years are more likely to exercise as young adults than children who drop out at an earlier age (Kjonniksen et al, 2008).
The conclusion is that the longer children participate in organized sports programs, the more likely they are to develop a habit of exercising as an adult. Given this, soccer clubs are in a position to play a key role in improving the health of future adults. Based on this, the European Union has emphasized the important role that sports clubs can play in promoting life-long physical activity. They feel that the sport as a tool for promoting health and physical activity has a greater influence on children, teens and young adults that any other activity or program. They also feel that sports clubs are one of the more under-utilized pathways to a healthier lifestyle. At a time when physical education in the schools is being reduced or even eliminated, it is important for sports clubs to fill the exercise void.
A key age for developing life-long exercise habits seems to be around 15-16 years old. It is at this age that sports programs have the largest drop rate. During the mid-teen years, adolescents find more academic and social activities, many enter the part-time work force and some lose their enjoyment of the sport. If clubs can keep kids active through their teen years, the impact on their adult exercise habits is much greater.
So, what is needed to capitalize on the health promotion benefits of youth soccer?
First, clubs should offer programs for kids of all abilities from novice to expert, from young to old. There should be opportunities for competitive athletes as well as those who “just want to get in some exercise”. Most importantly, players should develop an enjoyment for the game and an appreciation for being fit and healthy.
Second, all programs should stress and promote the role of physical activity in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This includes emphasizing both exercise and diet in maintain one’s fitness level. Not only will these two aspects improve fitness of the recreational player but it will increase performance of the competitive athlete.
Third, clubs should offer multiple opportunities and varieties for participation. The objective is for kids to continue participation without the program growing stale. Many participants in youth sport programs drop out around age 15-16. Offering new and exciting programs at this age will help avoid boredom and burn out that often accompanies “doing the same thing over and over”.
It is clear that youth soccer clubs can play a key role in promoting a healthy lifestyle. By instilling a life-long enjoyment of exercise and proper diet, soccer clubs can improve fitness in youth and help instill habits for a healthy adulthood.
Aarnio et al. (2002) Stability of leisure-time physical activity during adolescence – a longitudinal study among 16-, 17- and 18-year-old Finnish youth. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine, Science and Sports, 12:179-185.
Kjonniksen et al (2008) Organized youth sport as a predictor of physical activity in adulthood. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine, Science and Sports, 18: 1-9.
Mahoney et al. (2006) Organized activity participation, positive youth development, and the over-scheduling hypothesis. Social Policy Report, 20:3-32 (by the Society for Research in Child Development, National Academy of Sciences).
Tammelin et al. (2003) Adolescent participation in sports and adult physical activity. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 24: 22-28.
Trudeau et al., (2004) Tracking o f physical activity from childhood to adulthood. Medicine, Science and Sports in Exercise, 36:1937-1943.