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Encouraging kids to be more active is one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie goals that pretty much everyone sees as an excellent idea. Still, it’s worth asking: do the kids who are most active grow up to be the adults who are most active? And perhaps more importantly, which types of childhood activity (school phys ed? sports? unstructured play? walking or biking to school?) are most effective at establishing lifelong habits of physical activity?
Researchers in Australia just published a big study on the British Journal of Sports Medicine that followed up on 2,201 kids who had completed a detailed physical activity questionnaire way back in 1985, when they were between the ages of 9 and 15. The goal was to figure out whether and how “frequency and duration of discretionary sport and exercise (leisure activity), transport activity, school sport and physical education (PE) in the past week and number of sports played in the past year” when they were kids influenced their activity patterns as adults between the ages of 26 and 36.
Depending on how you look at it, the results are either very simple or very complicated. You can delve into all the nitty-gritty details of which childhood factors seem linked to which adulthood factors — and find puzzling and seemingly contradictory trends like this:
Higher levels of school sport among older males were associated with a 40% increase in the likelihood of being in the top third of total weekly activity in adulthood, but with a 40% lower likelihood among younger males.
Does this mean that school sport is bad for 9- to 12-year-olds and good for 13- to 15-year-olds? Probably not. As discussed earlier this week, when you search for links between large numbers of variables in a big collection of data, you’ll always find some relationships that appear statistically significant but in fact have little or no meaning. When you look at this data as a whole, there are a few “significant” associations, but there’s no overall trend, as the researchers acknowledge:
[F]ew associations were evident, most were relatively weak in magnitude and, for some activities, inconsistent in direction.
In other words, if you take a group of 12-year-olds and look at how active they are, you’ll have very little ability to predict which of those kids will have healthy, active lifestyles 20 years later. This is a bit of a bummer, because it makes it harder to decide exactly what types of physical activity are most useful for forming lifelong activity patterns. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this implies that school phys ed (and other childhood physical activity) isn’t useful! Phys ed for 12-year-olds may not produce healthy 30-year-olds, but it sure as heck produces healthy 12-year-olds — and that’s a worthwhile goal on its own.
And hey, there’s also the fact that (as Gretchen Reynolds wrote about in the New York Times last week), a little bit of physical activity makes you perform better on tests. What kid wouldn’t want a boost of brain-derived neurotrophic factor coursing through his veins and boosting his memory as he heads back to math class?