Men who played a varsity sport in high school tend to be physically active into their 70s, and therefore healthier, according to the results of a new study.
“Organized sports foster better health and fitness in old age. Counseling in primary care is important, because it may encourage more people to start exercising or to be physically active,” lead author Dr Simone Dohle of ETH Zurich, Department of Health Science and Technology, told ConsultantLive.
The researchers analyzed a unique data set of 712 healthy US men, average age 78 years, who had passed a rigorous physical exam in the 1940s and who were surveyed 50 years later (in 2000). Their physical activity level after 50 years was correlated and regressed across a wide number of demographic, behavioral, and personality variables from when they were 50 years younger.
The single strongest predictor of later-life physical activity was whether a man played a varsity sport in high school, in particular, football, basketball, baseball, or track and field; this also was related to fewer self-reported visits to the doctor.
“I believe that it is important that physicians specifically target physical activity in preventive counseling, combined with suggestions for exercise or physical activity, and information on how to start an exercise routine or where to find a sports or fitness club,” said Dr Dohle.
“When a physician takes down a patient’s medical history, it would be crucial to assess physical activity levels too,” she continued. “In addition, a physician could encourage a patient by highlighting that physical activity is one of the most effective ways to prevent chronic diseases.”
Physicians need to keep in mind, however, that every patient has his own needs, abilities, and constraints, Dr Dohle said. “Find an activity that ensures long-time involvement and that the patient enjoys.”
The findings also offer some compelling reasons to maintain or enhance high school athletic programs, even in an era of shrinking school budgets. Dr Dohle said, “It has been noted that physical education classes may be the only opportunity for many to engage in weekly physical activity. School-based organized sports should be preserved because they contribute to later physical activity levels and decrease the risk factors for early morbidity.”
Dr Dohle suggested that perhaps there are more cost-effective ways to maintain sports programs without eliminating them.
For younger patients, physicians need to ask about physical activity, including time spent playing outside or participation in organized sports, Dr Dohle stated. “Parents and other caregivers play a role in encouraging them to be active and should be involved in this discussion. It might be that other forms of relatively vigorous exercise and physical education classes could be promoted across grade levels,” she noted. “They need not concentrate on competition but rather on enjoyment, and on the benefits of and ways to stay physically active over the lifespan.”
Less competitive students can be steered toward noncompetitive activities, such as dance, weight lifting, and martial arts, Dr Dohle suggested.
The researchers published their results in the December 1, 2013, issue of BMC Public Health.