Benefits of Physical Activity

Health Benefits

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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).

Educational Benefits

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 (US Dept. of Education, 2005). 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).

Social/Psychological Benefits

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).

Female high school athletes are less likely to be sexually active, to use drugs, and to suffer from depression, when compared to non-athlete peers (Women's Sports Foundation, 2004). 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. 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). 

Parents appreciate these benefits. 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).

Financial Benefits

Getting people active could save the the global economy nearly $68 billion annually in medical costs and productivity. The US 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).

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