Engaging children in sports from a young age significantly increases the likelihood of them being physically active in later life, according to new research based on the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70).
A study led by researchers at University College London found that children who often took part in sport at age 10 were much more likely to participate in physical activities in their early 40s.
However, there was no association between active outdoor play in streets, parks or playgrounds in childhood and involvement in sporting activities 32 years later.
The researchers reached these conclusions after analysing information on 6,458 members of the BCS70, that was gathered at age 10 and age 42.
At the age 10 survey, BCS70 members’ parents or guardians provided information on the range of physical activities that their child was involved in. At age 42, the BCS70 cohort members reported how often they took part in physical activities and sports.
In analysing the results of the two surveys, the researchers took account of factors such as gender, child’s body mass index (BMI), father’s BMI, self-reported health and weight at age 42, and participant’s education.
The researchers note that obesity is on the rise in the UK, and that current recorded levels of physical activity are low.
Previous research has shown that physical activity, such as playing sports, can help prevent high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity. It can also help reduce anxiety and depression, and improve self-esteem.
Some research even suggests that physical activity in childhood can produce financial benefits as physically active children tend to be significantly healthier and wealthier as adults, compared to those who are inactive.
The authors of the new study think that involvement in organised sport at age 10 may yield benefits such as “team success, and the social rewards of team membership” that motivate children to continue being involved in physical activities.
“It is, however, important to note the benefits of outdoor play”, they add. “As well as the health benefits of physical activity…outdoor play facilitates social competence, problem solving, creative thinking and social skills”.
Nevertheless, they conclude that childhood activity interventions might best achieve lasting change by promoting engagement in sports, rather than active outdoor play.