Challenges to Physical Activity


Today's complex youth sport system necessitates significant resources to develop an athlete and play competitive sports (Sport Participation Rates Among Underserved American Youth, University of Florida's Sport Policy & Research Collaborative, 2014). Travel-team parents spend an average of $2,266 annually on their child's sports participation, and at the elite levels some families spend more than $20,000 per year. The barriers to participation emerge early, with the rise of grade-school travel teams and elite sport training options not accessible to many lower-income kids.

In 2015, about one in three parents (32%) from households making less than $50,000 a year told researchers that sports cost too much and make it difficult for their child to continue participating. That is compared to the one in six parents (16%) from households making $50,000 a year or more who said the same. The annual survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) in 2016 found only 35 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 from homes with $25,000 or less in income played team sports, compared to 68 percent of kids from $100,000+ homes. As adults, the disparity between participation based on income levels continues. Only 15% of lower-income adults (household incomes less than $25,000 a year) play sports, while 37% of higher-income adults (household incomes of $75,000 a year or more) do play (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard/NPR, 2015).


There's a relative lack of access for minority childrenSport participation rates for white children exceed that of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian kids. Data on other historically marginalized groups such as Native-American children are not even reported in government-funded studies that track physical activity in youth (University of Florida's SPARC, 2014). In the Native American community of San Felipe Pueblo, N.M, the only organized sport option is an after-school soccer program serving 250 of the 1,500 kids who live there and which is organized by a non-profit that addresses childhood obesity in tribal areas (Notah Begay III Foundation). Research shows that Latinos are being left behind in the U.S. pay-to-play soccer model.

Access is also shaped by geography and gender. In "low socio-economic schools," those that serve the highest percentage of kids on free or reduced-price lunches, only 24.6% of eighth graders play sports. For "high socio-economic schools," it's 36.1%. Despite major gains among girls over the past four decades delivered by Title IX legislation and enforcement, in 2012, the participation rates for girls remained 2-5% lower than for boys (Bridging the Gap, RWJF, 2012). A 2015 study suggests that gap may be closer to 6% (RWJF/Harvard/NPR, 2015). As adults, the gender gap is more pronounced: 35% of men say they play sports, while only 16% of women say the same thing (RWJF/Harvard/NPR, 2015). In Washington, D.C., the percentage of athletic opportunities provided to public high school students has been as low as 15% for boys and 6% for girls (Women's Sports Foundation, 2011).

Disparities exist by state, too. Northeast and Midwest states generally offer more participation opportunities than those in the South and West. Georgia has the lowest rate for girls (22%), Florida the lowest for boys (30%) (Women's Sports Foundation, 2012). 

Children with physical and intellectual disabilities often experience very limited opportunities in their communities. Despite growth in sport options in recent years driven in part by anti-discrimination laws, one estimate suggests physical activity levels for children with disabilities remain about 4.5 times lower than those without disabilities (University of Florida SPARC, 2014).

Casual play

Fading is the era of sandlot or pickup ball, a form of play that organically promoted innovation and fitness among generations of Americans. More than 40% of parents whose child plays an organized sport say their child does so year-round (RWJF/Harvard/NPR, 2015). Yet free play has been shown to produce higher levels of physical activity than organized sports. One study found that 43% of youth sports practice was spent being inactive (Physical Activity During Youth Sport Practices, 2011). Free play is all but a thing of the past in Western New York (Buffalo, Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes) and Southeast Michigan (Detroit and surrounding areas). According to a household survey of 22 counties in those regions, fewer than one in five youth play football near their home (Aspen Institute/Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation survey, 2017). It's one in 10 for basketball and less than one in 20 for baseball and soccer. Today, in those regions, the only activity that most kids engage in near their home is bicycling, enjoyed by about two-thirds of kids.

There's a lack of mainstream options for the moderately interested athlete. About 23% of middle schools and 40% of high schools do not offer intramural sports (Bridging the Gap, RWJF, 2012). In communities with fewer resources, sport options can be organized especially around the more motivated athletes and families. Parents from lower-income households are nearly twice as likely to say they hope their child will become a professional athlete as those from the higher-income homes (39% vs. 20%), according to the RWJF/Harvard/NPR survey.   

Recreation spaces

Half of all vigorous exercise engaged in by Americans occurs in parks. People who live closer to parks report better mental health. Time spent in green outdoor spaces has been shown to boost focus and concentration, and kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) experience milder symptoms when they play outside in a natural setting. But in some cities as many as two-thirds of children are without access to a nearby park (The Trust for Public Land). The deficits are greatest in predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods. 

Community Development Block Grants provide up to $100 million annually in support. Still, federal matching funds for urban parks have been slashed over the past decade, as has support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which helped get more than 40,000 outdoor recreation projects built, most between the 1960s and 1980. Some good news: The LWCF disbursed $45 million in 2015 and committed $110 million in 2016, the most in more than a decade. However, the LWCF is scheduled to expire in 2018.


Nearly nine out of 10 parents have concerns about risk of injury (87.9%), according to an espnW/Aspen Institute Project Play Survey of Parents on youth sports issues in 2014. Parents were more concerned about injuries than any other issue, including the quality or behavior of coaches (81.5%), cost (70.3%), the time commitment required (67.9%), and the emphasis on winning over having fun (66.1%). Read full results from the nationally representative survey.

More than 3.5 million children under age 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries annually. According to the CDC, more than half of all sports injuries are preventable. Overuse injuries are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle and high school students (STOP Sports Injuries).

Untrained coaches

Most youth coaches do not receive any training in key competencies in working with children. Only one in five coaches of youth teams of children under age 14 say they have been trained in effective motivational technique, and just one in three in skills and tactics in the primary sport they coach, according to 2013 data produced for Project Play by SFIA. There has been little to no improvement since then, according to 2016 data. Volleyball had the most-trained coaches in 2016 as measured by SFIA; soccer had the fewest.

Community leaders in Western New York consistently characterized coaches there as overly concerned with winning and that such priorities were a negative influence on sports participation, according to the Aspen Institute's 2017 report on the state of play in Western New York. The value of trained coaches was established long ago by researchers, with one study (Smoll and Smith, 1992) finding that when coaches received training in skills and communicating effectively with kids, only 5% of children chose not to play the sport again. With untrained coaches, the attrition rate was 26%.


Children today often spend many hours in front of screens (mobile phones, computers, video games, TV), with products that have gotten better at getting and keeping their attention. Even for those who are playing sports, these sedentary hobbies are competing interests in getting kids active through sports, according to parents. More than one in three parents say it is a challenge to make sure their children get enough exercise (RWJF/Harvard School of Public Health, 2016). A Gallup poll found children ages 2 to 10 spend significantly less time engaged in free play than they do in front of screens (18 to 21 hours a week). Nearly all of the kids had more screen time than the number of hours per day recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Now, say hello to esports. It's young people watching other young people play video games – the latest success of the industry in giving kids what they want, and thus another potential competitor for kids’ attention. College scholarships now exist for esports. The National Association of Collegiate eSports has climbed to more than 30 member colleges, whose average scholarship payout is about $7,600 (Inside Higher Education, 2017). 

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