There is little doubt that playing soccer directly affects one’s heath. The amount of physical activity and the emphasis on proper diet found in competitive soccer clearly reduces the risk and incidence of health-related problems such as childhood obesity. It also seems that the benefits of youth sports carry over to adulthood. Now, more evidence has emerged linking competitive athletics with decreased risk of health problems later in life. Researchers in Turku, Finland have found that participation in competitive sports is associated with reduced odds of developing metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is cluster of several risk factors that increase ones odds of developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. These include obesity, elevated blood pressure (hypertension), elevated blood glucose, insulin resistance and elevated cholesterol. Some studies suggest that 25% of the US adult population may suffer from metabolic syndrome. More recent studies indicate that some of these risk factors are beginning to appear in both adolescents and children. Researchers agree that one key strategy to preventing or reversing metabolic syndrome is exercise, physical activity and diet.
In this study, researchers examined a series of surveys administered to Finnish children and youth (ages 6-18). The Young Finns Study asked a wide range of questions regarding health, physical activity, diet, etc. Specifically, the initial survey conducted between 1962 and 1977, asked the kids if they played competitive sports with a sports club less than once per week (non-athletic level), once per week (moderate-athletic level) or more than once per week with regional or national team play (high-athletic level). Because the survey was administered over the course of several years, the investigators could determine which athletes dropped out (played less 3 years) and those who persisted playing three or more years.
The original survey participants were contacted again after they had reached 24-39 years of age. At that time, they were asked about their current health status including several markers of metabolic syndrome (body weight, blood glucose, etc.).
The results showed that 16% of the male non-athletic group had developed metabolic syndrome compared to only 6% of the high-athletic group. In females, the rates of developing metabolic syndrome were lower, but the difference between non-athletic and high-athletic groups was similar to the males. In fact, the odds of non-athletic group developing metabolic syndrome were 3-4 times that of the high-athletic group.
Persistent athletes had lower odds of developing metabolic syndrome than those who played less than three years (drop outs). High-athletic athletes also had lower risk than moderate-athletes. Lastly, being a starter did not affect the risk as long as participation persisted.
This study indicates that participation in competitive youth sports for three or more years is associated with reduced risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Persistence seems to be the key rather than the individual skill level.
There are two reasons why this might occur. First, it is possible that competitive sports may lay the foundation for a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise and proper diet, both of which lower the risk for metabolic syndrome, may be instilled at a young age. In a study reported earlier on the Science of Soccer Online, researchers found that kids who played sports at an early age remained more physically active later in life (link). So there is reason to suggest that competitive youth sports do in fact develop habits that will keep individuals health through adulthood.
Second, it is also possible that genetic factors and what is called self-selection may be at play. Genetics influences a number of metabolic syndrome characteristics such as blood pressure and cholesterol. It may be that kids who have a genetic make-up that makes them less susceptible to developing these risk factors are the same ones who gravitate towards competitive sports. That is, athletes may not only be gifted in terms of sports performance but also in terms of avoiding metabolic syndrome risk factors.
In either case, this finding has implications for promoting youth sports as part of a healthy lifestyle. It is yet another piece of a growing body of evidence linking youth sports to a healthy adult lifestyle. Soccer clubs can play an important role by providing an avenue for participation in physical activity and by instilling habits that will last a lifetime. These include, engaging in regular vigorous exercise and eating a diet that is high in nutrients and low in fat.
Yang X, TElam R, Hirvensalo, Viikari SJA, Raitakari (2009) Sustained participation in youth sport decreases metabolic syndrome in adulthood. International Journal of Obesity, DOI: 10.1038/ijo.2009.171.