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Do Organized Sports Interfere With Healthy Living?

sharma-obesity-varsity-sportsPhysical activity is the best medicine and we certainly have an epidemic of sedentariness in Canada.

But is this an argument in favour of encouraging kids to participate more in organized sports?

Not if you also care about healthy eating and perhaps other aspects of life-work balance according to a study by Andrea Chircop and colleagues from Dalhousie University in Halifax, published in Health Promotion International.

Based on in-depth family interviews in youth recruited from six schools at the junior high school level (grades 7-9; age range 12-14 years) based on location (urban, suburban and rural) and neighborhood socioeconomic status (high and low socioeconomic status), it turns out that time pressure to meet the demands associated with scheduled physical activity for youth was the dominant theme across interviews from all neighborhoods.

Participants consistently placed far more emphasis on the importance of physical activity than on healthy eating.

Thus, the pressure to engage youth in organized physical activity appeared to outweigh the importance of healthy eating, which led to neglecting family meals at home and consuming fast food and take out options.

As the authors note, it is perhaps the increased public emphasis on participation in organized sports that may in fact be inadvertently driving kids (and their parents?) directly into the arms of the fast and convenience food industry.

Thus far, very little attention has been placed in health policy discussion on how to tackle the “time starvation” as the underlying cause of unhealthy lifestyles.

It is perhaps time to consider public health discourse on whether or not any putative benefits from participation in organized sports are largely cancelled out by the ensuing time pressure that not only seriously cuts into time for healthy eating but also sleep and other activities that should be part of an overall healthy lifestyle.

This discussion is particularly relevant given that in Canada the “fitness tax benefit” appears to be little more than a boondoggle to the “sports and fitness industrial complex”, which, incidentally, appears to worry more about profits (including advertising revenues from the promotion of unhealthy foods and beverages) than improving population health.

If you find that your kids’ over-scheduled lifestyles interfere with healthy eating or sleep (or even school work), I’d love to hear about it.

Zurich, Switzerland

ResearchBlogging.orgChircop A, Shearer C, Pitter R, Sim M, Rehman L, Flannery M, & Kirk S (2013). Privileging physical activity over healthy eating: ‘Time’ to Choose? Health promotion international PMID: 23945086





  1. I think this post is encouraging people to look at this issue from a very unproductive viewpoint. The referenced study shows correlation, not causation, yet the tone of the post very much suggests a causative effect. It’s simply not a binary issue – play organized, scheduled sports/activities, therefore make poor food choices. There are myriad strategies that allow families to be involved in organized activities while still maintaining healthy eating habits.

    “Participants consistently placed far more emphasis on the importance of physical activity than on healthy eating.” And? Does the emphasis placed on the importance of physical activity somehow de-emphasize the importance of making good nutritional choices? Again, it’s not (or, at least, shouldn’t be) a binary choice. These are 2 completely separate issues. Having said that, I understand that, holistically, each contributes to an overall healthy lifestyle. Instead of pitting them against each other, though, can the emphasis not be made on the potential for the positive feedback/reinforcement each aspect can bring to the other?

    Disappointed. Feels like a great opportunity was missed to promote a better message.

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  2. When my kids were young I enrolled them in soccer twice a week believing that they needed the social interaction and fitness. At the time I was working full time and got home around 5 pm. Soccer started at 6 pm and I tried my best to have some kind of healthy meal ready (prepared the night before) but I could not make it work for love nor money. In order to be at the field we would typically need to leave by 5:30 and half an hour to unpack from the day, heat the meal, clean up and get ready simply didn’t work. By the time we got home at 8:30 it was too late to have a good meal as bedtime was around 9 – 9:30. In the end, the stress was too much for me, my kids were not eating well and they didn’t really love soccer so I decided to take them out of soccer (much to the chagrin of my husband who really thought they should have the chance to become star athletes like the rest of the kids).
    Years later, I met a woman whose kids were in soccer for years and years. It was in fact their life. This woman was a stay at home mom and I realized that it was this privilege of not having to juggle multiple things that allowed her kids to become soccer stars.
    In addition to causing a lot of stress trying to make the soccer practices and games the time drain meant that I couldn’t exercise myself. I guess that is why we see the obesity epidemic hit those with lower socioeconomic status much harder than those who are rich. The lady mentioned above, had time for her kids and time for herself owing to the fact that money can buy time. For her family soccer was exercise. For mine it was stress.

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  3. I sincerely hope you posted this as a way to generate a discussion and that you don’t actually stand behind this study.

    What’s the alternative? Ban organized sports because kids tend to eat unhealthy if they are “time starved” because of the sports they play? Maybe the “researchers” – and I use that term very loosely – should have also surveyed non sports kids to see how they eat? Do you really think there would’ve been much difference? I would bet that it might have been even worse.

    I was involved in sports as a kid and yes, I was busy. And yes, I ate at fast food places a lot and wasn’t home for dinner all the time. But my parents still kept a plate in the fridge for me for when I got home after practices. And if I did go eat at fast food places it sure wasn’t just the sports kids there, that’s for sure.

    Kids are going to eat unhealthy foods regardless of whether they play sports or not, that’s just the way it is. And until governments stop subsidizing those types of foods and making them available so readily that’s the way it will stay.

    At least the kids that are active in sports are burning some calories through exercise and activity and learning team skills and cooperation and the plethora of other beneficial skills learned through sport.

    The fact that these kinds of “studies” – and again I use that term very loosely – get any type of funding makes me question the validity of the research model. There are so many more important things that could be studied that actually deserve funding rather than trying to blame things like sports and being “time starved” for the child obesity crisis that is rising every day.

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  4. This is consistent with what I’ve seen in our area. One of the fast food restaurants hands out coupons for free cokes, fries and shakes to be distributed to the kids on the teams and it is common to see discressionary coupons going to coaches to be used as rewards.

    There are exceptions, of course, but it takes dedication on the part of a parent. A friend in her early 30s now was an elite athlete through college and some professional play. Her mother was determined to make sure she ate well and developed good habits. This meant packing snacks and post practice meals. Not easy with two working parents and multiple children.

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  5. We do not have kids but one local fast food chain provides junk food coupons to kids who participate in organized sports teams.

    On the other hand, a patron of soccer who we have met has organized a charity for poor areas where there not only are soccer games but also balanced and nutritious meals and instruction for the kids with the instruction covering diet and basic health care, so it is possible to create a balance that is healthier for the children.

    One thing that worries me about emphasis in schools on organized sports for children is that few people pursue those activities once they have graduated. There are so many other types of exercise which can be carried on into adult years such as weight training (something I love), dancing, hiking, running, swimming, solo rowing, and more which do not require teams. Those types of exercise can become life-long habits, many year-round, even though they often eventually need to be modified to suit changes with aging and life’s accumulated damages.

    So, I think there are solutions but that many places do not pursue them. Personally, besides making solo exercise like weight training available to all children once they are old enough to do them, I think it would be a great idea if sports teams worked in a way to have the children have a healthy meal together after their games, complete with conversation, sharing, and learning. These are both doable goals; they just usually are not done.

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  6. I think you once posted a link to a study that looked at perception of issues affecting weight versus overweight and obesity. The study seemed to conclude that people who believe exercise is the primary contributor to weight were heavier than those who believed healthy eating was the primary contributor. I cannot find this study, but I’d definitely be interested in rereading it after looking at this blog post.

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  7. I think you have missed the mark in this whole ordeal and missed aking a few questions in your data collection. To participate is a choice and what we eat is a totally separate choice. If we said particpation in general causes bad choices, then we better cancel every piano lesson, dance class, after school club, church group, etc. etc. etc.!!! Lets just all stay home and get fat instead!
    These activities are NOT the reason for our bad food choices. Lazyness, carelessness, selfishness, and a general lack of concern for ourselves AND OUR KIDS is driving the poor decisions we make re food. If you are out 2 nights a week, a little bit of planning and preparation can go a long, long way! If the fact you have to prepare or buy a “Healthy Meal” is stressful or too time consumng, then you are not even trying. There are healthy choice restuarants you can go to. There are healthy menus items you can select on pretty well ANY menue. There are quick and easy preparation techniques that are stress free, often liberating, to those who find this simplistic process a chore. You don’t have to be rich or poor to make good/bad choices, you do have to care to make good choices, and yes maybe sacrifice a little bit along the way. When I think about who I am making that sacrifice for……NO QUESTIONS ASKED!

    You can enjoy an after hours activity with your kids, have a healthy snack/meal as a family, and enjoy the rest of your evening. Or, you can kill yourself and your kids. It’s a simple choice, and nothing tO do with hockey or soccer.

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