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Most of us are familiar with the physical benefits of sport participation: lower resting heart rate, lower body fat percentage, higher bone density, etc. The physical benefits of regular sport participation seem to be endless. However, the holistic model of health, which includes emotional, cognitive, and social aspects, seems to provide the nuanced approach that is necessary to assess the big picture. A new study suggests that the benefits of sports participation in early childhood (ages 3-10) go beyond physical fitness and improve all aspects of health during a critical period of a child’s development.

The study used holistic health data from two large health interview surveys and compared two groups: children who participate in organized sports at least once per week, and children who do not participate in organized sports. The surveys, filled out by the parents of the examined children, included a behavioral screening questionnaire and school grades/performance questions. The behavioral questionnaire focused on issues such as emotional problems, behavioral problems, hyperactivity, peer problems, and anti-social behavior.

Children who regularly engage in organized sports are more likely to perform better in school and have more positive behavior outcomes than children who do not participate in organized sports.

Image Source: RPM Pictures

The findings suggest that children who regularly engage in organized sports are more likely to perform better in school and have more positive behavior outcomes than children who do not participate in organized sports. All of the behavior issues above showed improvement in the children who participated in sports. Expectedly, they also found that children in sports had less body fat and a lower resting pulse rate. Thus, it is clear that the benefits of sports go beyond the narrow aspects of physical fitness. Children have much more to gain when they participate in organized sports. It is especially important to encourage these effects at the critical time of cognitive and social development that is early childhood.

Interestingly, the study also found that the active children were more likely to have parents that were working, highly educated, in a higher social class, and living in an urban area rather than a rural area. This discrepancy between the levels of physical activity of children in the upper and lower socioeconomic classes should spur public action. Perhaps, it is time for increased public investment in after-school sports programs in underserved areas. The benefits of child sport participation make it clear that increasing access and participation in sports should be a priority for every parent.

For low income families, participating in organized sports can be an unaffordable luxury. This is why funding for physical education in public schools is so important. A recent study in 2014 reviewed the current approaches of physical education in the United States.  The researchers point out that the current public health focus is to prevent obesity by promoting the guidelines of 60 minutes of aerobic activity per day. However, they found that this public health effort has not been effective. Instead, they suggest that physical education should encourage lifelong activity by developing motor skills in an enjoyable and social environment. This requires having PE teachers who are educated in childhood psychosocial development. Every child should have the opportunity to develop the social and behavioral skills that sports provide, and quality physical education can provide this opportunity to the public.

Feature Image Source: Fast Break [Explored] by Jason Devaun

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