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Globe Editorial

In sports but not in shape

December 8, 2010

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PARENTS PROBABLY assume that the time and money they spend shuttling to and from youth sports practices pays off in the form of exercise for their kids. But this may be far from true. More and more evidence indicates that kids in organized sports such as baseball, football, and even soccer don’t spend nearly as much time as they should exercising vigorously.

A study in this month’s Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine is hardly encouraging. The study focused on 200 children ages 7 to 14 who played soccer, baseball, or softball in 29 teams in the San Diego area. They wore sensors to detect their level of physical activity during practice. On average, players were inactive a surprising 30 minutes per practice — in line with a previous study that found that participants in youth sports didn’t move much for 43 percent of their practice time.

According to national guidelines, children and adolescents should get 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day. But fewer than 50 percent of children and 10 percent of teens actually do, studies show. Especially sobering are the statistics for girls, who spend a dismal 3 to 10 minutes a day doing vigorous activity. That’s precisely why so many parents enroll their kids in organized sports. By one estimate, some 44 million American children and teens participate in these programs.

Compared to baseball and softball, soccer players in the San Diego study were very active for a higher percentage of their practice time. But in all, the study found that only 24 percent of participants met the 60-minute recommendation. Among 11- to 14-year-olds the results were much worse, with only 10 percent of kids getting their recommended levels of vigorous exercise.

Children in youth sports don’t need drill sergeants to keep them constantly on the move. But they may need coaches who place more emphasis on fitness and less on competitiveness, keeping all children active during practice rather than focusing on star athletes while others wait by the sidelines. Leagues staffed with parent volunteers who have little experience with training regimens may need to provide guidelines to bring young players to the 60-minute mark. Meanwhile, parents who are worried about their children’s fitness should pay close attention to their practice routines. Unfortunately, participation in sports does not guarantee their kids are getting enough exercise. Walking to school, running around at recess, and traditional Phys Ed classes all still have their place.