by Justin Sayban


Regular physical activity benefits health in many ways, including helping build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints; helping control weight and reduce fat; and preventing or delaying the development of high blood pressure (GAO, 2012). Exercise is one of the least expensive ways to stay healthy, with one study finding that exercise can prevent chronic diseases as effectively as medication (British Journal of Medicine, 2013). A comprehensive study and analysis of existing research found that leisure-time physical activity is associated with reduced risk of 13 different types of cancer, including breast, colon, liver and myeloid leukemia (National Institutes of Health, 2016).

Sports participation is a significant predictor of young adults' participation in sports and physical fitness activities. Adolescents who play sports are eight times as likely to be active at age 24 as adolescents who do not play sports (Sports Participation as Predictors of Participation in Sports and Physical Fitness Activities in Young Adulthood, Perkins, 2004). Three in four (77%) of adults aged 30+ who play sports today played sports as school-aged children. Only 3% of adults who play sports currently did not play when they were young (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard University/NPR, 2015).

Obesity reduction. In a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers analyzed obesity prevention strategies and their ability to reduce obesity by the year 2032. They found afterschool physical activity programs would reduce obesity the most, 1.8% among children ages 6 to 12. That's twice the projected impact as any ban on child-directed fast-food advertising. An earlier study of college students found that "motives for sport participation are more desirable than those for exercise and may facilitate improved adherence to physical activity recommendations" (Kilpatrick, Journal of American College Health, 2005).

But the obesity epidemic continues. In 2018, a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed overweight and obesity rates increased in all age groups among children ages 2 to 19 (Prevalence of Obesity and Severe Obesity in U.S. Children, 1999-2016). The rates generally increased with age, with 41.5% of teens being obese by 16 to 19 years old. Of particular concern were continued racial and ethnic disparities. White and Asian children showed significantly lower rates of obesity than Hispanic and African-American children. Researchers also found a sharp increase in obesity from 2015 to 2016 compared to the previous cycle among children ages 2 to 5, especially boys. Girls 16 to 19 years old had a notable jump in overweight rates, from 36% in 2013-14 to 48% in 2015-16. Youth who have disabilities are 4.5 times less active and have obesity rates that are 38% higher than other youth (Physical Literacy in the United States: A Model, Strategic Plan, and Call to Action, 2015).

Not enough children are active. A 2018 study from Nationwide Children’s Hospital showed that just 5% of youth ages 5 to 18 reported meeting the federally recommended amount of exercise — 60 minutes per day. The study, which examined 7,822 children over three years, also found that 50 percent were insufficiently active and 5 percent reported no physical activity. Researchers recommended that pediatricians should treat exercise like a vital sign, similar to height and weight, and engage patients in conversations about how to be more physically active. A 2020 study found that 60% of American children had inadequate levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, putting them at increased risk of chronic diseases at younger ages (American Heart Association, 2020). The Aspen Institute’s Healthy Sport Index is a tool that can help parents find the best sport for their child based on health benefits and risks. The resource includes original research that found boys generate more vigorous physical activity at high school practices than girls (North Carolina State University, 2018). 


Organized sports activity helps children develop and improve cognitive skills, according to a study that tracked kids from kindergarten through fourth grade (Piche, 2014). Physical activity in general is associated with improved academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores. Further, such activity can affect attitudes and academic behavior, including enhanced concentration, attention, and improved classroom behavior (GAO, 2012).

High school athletes are more likely than non-athletes to attend college and get degrees, and team captains and most valuable players achieve in school at even higher rates (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2005). Also, high school athletes are more likely to expect to graduate from a four-year college (73% girls, 59% boys) compared to non-athletes (67% girls, 53% boys), according to data collected for the Healthy Sport Index (Women’s Sports Foundation, 2018). A higher percentage of high school athletes also receive A/A- grades than non-athletes (Women’s Sports Foundation, 2018). 

The benefits extend to the workplace. A survey of 400 female corporate executives found 94% played a sport and that 61% say sports contributed to their career success (EY Women Athletes Business Network/espnW, 2014).  


A correlation has been found between regular exercise and mental health among students in general as they move into the teenage years. Among students who exercised six to seven days a week, 25.1% felt sad for two weeks or more in the past 12 months, compared to 35.7% of students who reported exercising on zero to one day (Women’s Sports Foundation, 2004). Of students who exercised six to seven days, 15% reported suicidal ideation, and 6.4% reported a suicide attempt in the past year, compared to 24.6% and 10.3% of students who exercised zero to one day, respectively (Journal of American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2015). A 2019 study found that children who reported no exercise were twice as likely to have mental health problems, particularly related to anxiety and depression, compared with those who met the recommendation of an hour a day, and a 2020 study suggested that the more physical activity teenagers participated in, the less likely they were to report depression as 18-year-olds (The New York Times, 2020).

Physical activity, and sports in particular, can positively affect aspects of personal development among young people, such as self-esteem, goal-setting, and leadership. However, evidence indicates that the quality of coaching is a key factor in maximizing positive effects (GAO, 2012). 

Both male and female high school athletes are less likely to smoke cigarettes and suffer from loneliness and low self-esteem, when compared to non-athlete peers, according to research used for the Healthy Sport Index (Women’s Sports Foundation, 2018). High school athletes, though, are more likely to binge drink alcohol, with youth in contact sports (football, lacrosse, wrestling) showing the riskiest off-field behavior.

Different sports have different social and psychological benefits. A 2018 psychosocial survey by the Aspen Institute and University of Texas showed that team sports fared better than individual sports, such as tennis, track and field, and cross country. The study, part of the Healthy Sport Index, evaluated personal and social skills, cognitive skills, goal setting skills, initiative skills, health skills and negative experiences for high school athletes based on their primary sport. There seems to be evidence that more traditional team sports may be structured – or, at least, interpreted by the participants – in a manner that produces more concrete experiences associated with well-being.

Parents appreciate these benefits. Improving physical health was the No. 1 benefit parents gave for engaging their children in organized sports (Hospital for Special Surgery/Aspen Institute, 2018). Improved mental health, fun and enjoyment, promote teamwork and improved self-confidence were the next highest benefits identified by parents. In Southeast Michigan, 82 percent of parents said it's very important or somewhat important for their child to be regularly involved in sports, according to a 2017 survey by the Siena College Research Institute commissioned by the Aspen Institute. (Read the Southeast Michigan report.) Another survey of parents, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard/NPR survey in 2015, showed the positive traits parents believe playing sports has had for their children: physical health (88%), giving the child something to do (83%), teaching discipline or dedication (81%), teaching how to get along with others (78%), mental health (73%), social life (65%), skills to help in future schooling (56%), and skills to help in a future career (55%). Find more benefits at "Human Capital Model" on p. 11 of the "Designed to Move" report (2012).


Getting people active could save the the global economy nearly $68 billion annually in medical costs and productivity. The U.S. alone could save up to $28 billion. And individuals could find $2,500 or more in their pocket if they move for 30 minutes five times per week (The Lancet Physical Activity Series). 

Read more at The Aspen Institute: Project Play