Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your health. Studies have found that it reduces the risk of major illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart disease by up to 50 per cent. The NHS even describes exercise as a “miracle cure”. This is especially true for young people.
According to a study by Public Health England, one in three children are obese at the time of leaving primary school. This can cause serious harm, such as emotional and behavioural issues, bullying, absence from school and an increased risk of being overweight as an adult. In England, only 21 per cent of boys and 16 per cent of girls achieve recommended levels of physical activity, and this decreases as they get older: by the time they’re 15, only 8 per cent of girls meet this requirement.
However, the benefit enjoyed by those who do exercise is enormous: young people who take part in leisure sports have higher levels of physical fitness, better overall cardiometabolic health, and stronger muscles and bones. As well as improved physical health, there are a number of other benefits of sporting achievement for young people.
Mental health and behaviour
That high you feel after a run or winning a game of tennis isn’t just temporary. Exercise can reduce anxiety and stress, and plays a role in preventing the development of mental health issues. The World Health Organisation reports that physical activity has clear psychological benefits for young people helping them combat anxiety and depression while sporting success and participation build self-confidence, social interaction and integration.
Behaviour at school improves too. A controlled trial to promote physical activity in children found that having exercise breaks between lessons improved students’ behaviour once back in the classroom. Exercise before study leads to better concentration in class and improved perceptual skills.
The discipline that participation and success in sport requires is excellent training for young people, helping them to develop good time management skills, increase focus and concentration, and learn to take responsibility for their own achievements and failures. It also helps them to become accustomed to handling pressure, stress and anxiety – on and off the playing field.
Academic performance and school attendance
In 2016 24 researchers from eight countries came to an ‘evidence-based consensus’, finding that exercise is beneficial for children’s brain function, cognition and scholastic performance. Further, it has been found that young people who take part in physical activity and sports tend to outperform their inactive peers in the classroom and in tests.
A study of 5,000 teenagers by the universities of Strathclyde and Dundee reported that, for every 15 minutes of exercise, grades went up by an average of a quarter – meaning that children who took part in 60 minutes of sport each day could improve their academic performance by a full grade. The study also showed a particular link between participation in physical activity and improved performance in science among girls.
Overall, increased participation and achievement in sport also results in an increase in attendance at school. A Youth Sport Trust survey found that 70 per cent of schools believe that sport reduces truancy. A study by the University of Kansas found that those who took part in sport had higher percentages of days attended, higher graduation rates, and lower chances of dropout.
Sport promotes social inclusion: it transcends young people’s social, cultural and demographic characteristics. Taking part in and winning sporting competitions helps young people feel a sense of belonging. Studies have found that pupils who take part in PE even feel more positively connected to their school. Sport is social, whether it’s a team activity or an individual sport. It encourages friendship and enables young people to meet and interact with others with similar interests and passions. These close friendships are linked to positive participation behaviour and motivation.
A brighter future
Taking part in competitive sport makes children better prepared for challenges they’ll face as adults – both professionally and socially – and teaches them skills and strategies to deal with winning and losing, and success and failure, says Choi et al. Youth development programmes that are based on physical activity and that have a planned curriculum and training are effective at promoting life skills (such as self-regulation) and core values (such as social responsibility) in children and young people.
There’s also a long-term health benefit. A young person who takes part in sports is eight times more likely to be active as a 24-year-old adult than an adolescent who didn’t play sports, while 77 per cent of adults who are 30 and older who participate in physical activities did so as school-aged children. Only 3 per cent of adults who participate in sport didn’t start when they were young.
Encouraging young people to take part in sports is beneficial in so many ways, from enhanced performance in the classroom to creating opportunities to build strong friendships and ensuring they continue to be active into adulthood. However, with young people often reluctant to take part in physical activity, it’s important for schools, coaches and sports programmes to provide a schedule or curriculum of physical activity and sports training, and to take on the role of motivating and encouraging young people whenever possible.