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Can we change the culture of high school sports so that more teens get exercise?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  July 16, 2012 02:26 PM

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Want to keep your high school student from getting fat? Make sure they play at least two sports during the school year. 

That's the message of a study just released in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers interviewed about 1700 high school students and their parents, asking about how the kids ate and spent their time (and about their height and weight). Of everything, playing on at least two sports teams each year was what made the biggest difference when it came to keeping kids at a healthy weight (walking or biking to school helped too). The authors said that if every student played on two teams,it could cut the prevalence of overweight and obesity by 26 percent. 

I think it's a great idea. After all, we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic, with a third of US kids overweight or obese. Exercise helps, but the problem has been getting kids to exercise. This idea uses something that is available to the vast majority of high school students. Sounds really straightforward--and it's not like there are a whole lot of better ideas out there.

There are, however, a couple of obstacles.

Cost is clearly an obstacle. All over the country schools are having to make cuts in their budgets, and adding a whole lot of new athletes (with the coaching and other expenses that would entail) could be tough. It could also be tough for some families, as many schools charge a fee to be on a team (I paid around $200 for my kids). We'd have to figure out how to pay.

But the bigger obstacle, I think, will be changing the culture of high school sports.

When I was in high school, it never occurred to me to play sports. Back then, I was one of the last picked for kickball, if you know what I mean. I'm reasonably athletic now, but as a teen I was more one of the geeks. None of my friends were on teams, and without friends to do it with you, well, it's kind of a non-starter. Basically, as a teen if you're not good at sports, or if you don't hang out with kids who play sports, chances are you won't play sports. That's what has to change if we want to get kids moving.

We need to follow the example of my son's high school swim team. All it took to make the team was an interest in doing it--and the ability to swim 50 yards or so without drowning. The coach divided the kids up in practice and coached them according to their ability. There were a few kids who, like my son, were experienced swimmers; they helped the newbies out. The team didn't win a whole lot of meets, but the boys had a really great time--and everybody got to be a better swimmer (and got regular vigorous exercise).

We could make high school sports mandatory, I suppose. Some schools do, or do some variation on that theme. It may be the road we end up needing to take, if obesity rates keep rising. But wouldn't it be better if we could make kids actually want to do it? Wouldn't it be better if coaches and school staff and current athletes and others did outreach to the kids who don't usually play sports--and helped them not only do it but enjoy it?

We'd have to be willing to let go of the goal of winning. We'd have to be willing to celebrate teamwork, and individual goals, instead. We'd have to be willing to think of sports as exercise--and as games.

I don't know if we can do these things. But I think we should try. The health of our children is at stake.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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