According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year, approximately three million cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) occur among teenagers and 860,000 teenagers become pregnant. In addition, 80% of high school seniors have used alcohol, 62% have smoked cigarettes, 49% have used marijuana, and 9% have used cocaine.

Students who participate in sports are less likely to smoke, use marijuana or other drugs, or engage in risky sexual behaviors. Few studies that have examined substance use and sexual activity, however, considered the effects of physical activity level or gender.

A new study published in the September 2003 issue of the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine was conducted to identify whether being vigorously active, participating on a sports team, or both is associated with substance abuse and sexual behaviors—and whether these associations are specific to gender. The results indicate that adolescent girls who both participate in team sports and are physically active (but not either alone) are less likely to engage in several health risk behaviors. Among adolescent boys, physically active team sport members were less likely to use drugs other than cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, or steroid pills/shots (without a prescription) compared to physically active students who did play on a team.

About the Study

The researchers analyzed data from the 1999 school-based Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS, which represented 15,349 students in grades 9 through 12 attending public or private schools in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Students were placed in one of four categories based on their responses to a questionnaire asking them about recent exercise and participation on a sports team in the past year:

  1. Active team – Those who reported participation on at least one sports team and 20 minutes or more of vigorous physical activity on three or more active days.
  2. Active non-team – Students who reported no participation on teams but 20 minutes or more of vigorous physical activity on three or more active days.
  3. Non-active team – Those who reported participation on at least one sports team and 20 minutes or more of vigorous physical activity on fewer than three days.
  4. Non-active non-team – Students who reported neither team membership nor three or more days of vigorous physical activity for 20 minutes.

Additionally, several YRBS questions on lifetime and recent sexual activity and substance abuse were selected for this study.

The Findings

The researchers found that:

  • 41.9% of the students were in the active team category
  • 22.1% were active non-team
  • 12.6% were non-active team
  • 22.3% were non-active non-team

Male and female students were about evenly split among the categories with the following exceptions: there were far more girls than boys in the non-active, non-team category (29.3% vs. 15.1%), and there were far more boys than girls in the active team category (48.9% vs. 34.8%).

Among male students, the only risk behavior associated with any category was “other drug use” (which included cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines). Active team participants were less likely to use such drugs (18.2%) than were active non-team participants (25.8%). Active team participants did not differ significantly from non-active team or non-active non-team male students.

Among female students, active team members were significantly less likely than other female students to have ever had sexual intercourse or multiple sexual partners. Active team participants also had a significantly lower prevalence of having ever been pregnant than girls in the other groups, with the exception of non-active team participants. In addition, the active team female students were significantly less likely to be current cigarette or marijuana users compared to the active non-team group (but not compared to girls in the other two groups).

Although these findings are intriguing, it is important to remember that this study may be limited by the fact that students could have either under- or over-reported their health risk behavior. Moreover, because of the cross-sectional nature of the study, the researchers could not determine whether any of the health risk behaviors examined were the direct result of participation in sports.

How Does This Affect You?

This study suggests that physical activity plus sports team participation indeed modifies health risk behavior. And, it does so differently for male and female students. This may be because the motivational factors for team sports participation or the nature of sports themselves may attract a different subset of adolescent boys versus girls. Whatever the case, it seems that girls who are physically active and participate in team sports distinguish themselves from other female and male students.

While the long-term benefits of physical activity are relatively clear, the advantages for adolescents of vigorous physical activity and sports participation are less well understood. Longitudinal studies, which follow a group of people over time, are needed to determine the precise nature of the association between participation in team sports and risk behaviors.

Even without such studies, it seems obvious that parents, teachers, and administrators should seriously consider the immediate and far reaching benefits of sports participation when planning their educational programs.