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A team effort

By Amos Esty

Encouraging teenagers to play team sports may be the best way to help them maintain a healthy weight.

Our only chance to get people physically active throughout their lives is to help them find something that they enjoy.

Rates of obesity among adolescents have climbed sharply in recent decades, and about one-third of teenagers are now overweight or obese. But though researchers, policymakers, and health-care providers are concerned about this trend, it isn't clear what the best approach is to reversing it.

Research led by Keith Drake, Ph.D., a recent graduate of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, suggests that team sports are a more effective way of promoting healthy weight among adolescents than encouraging teenagers to walk or bike to school or providing physical education classes. In an article published in Pediatrics, Drake analyzed data from a survey of 1,718 New Hampshire and Vermont high school students. The students were surveyed in 2002-2003 and again several years later to provide long-term data. In the more recent survey, 29% of the teenagers were overweight and 13% were obese. But those who played three or more team sports in a year were 27% less likely to be overweight and 39% less likely to be obese than their peers who played no team sports. Even playing a single team sport had a protective effect. Active commuting (walking or biking to school) was associated with a lower risk of obesity, but it was not associated with a lower risk of being overweight.

Drake concluded that the rate of teenagers who are overweight would decrease by 10.6% (from 28.8% to 25.7%) and the rate of obesity would decrease by 26.1% (from 12.8% to 9.5%) if all teenagers played at least two team sports per year.

Drake notes that in recent years a lot of resources have been directed toward making it possible for kids to walk or bike to school, but those resources might be better used to widen access to team sports.

"It's like reading," he says. "You just want to give kids fun books that they enjoy so that they make this connection between reading and pleasure. That might turn into a lifelong enjoyment of reading and education." By making exercise enjoyable through team sports—rather than through fitness drills or running on treadmills—adolescents may start to have positive associations with exercise.

"We're doing such a bad job promoting physical activity and healthy diet," he says. "I think our only chance to get people physically active throughout their lives is to help them find something that they enjoy and make this connection between having fun and being physically active."

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