Many parents encourage their children to participate in athletics for a host of reasons, including improved health, better teamwork, and socialization. However, parents and coaches may not be fully aware of the profound effects that fitness can have on the health of children. In a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, this topic was examined in depth.
In the study, Spanish children were categorized as having either high or low aerobic capacity and musculoskeletal capacity. Each of these categories was then compared to several health factors, including happiness and nutrition.
Low aerobic fitness was associated significantly with every factor for poor health the researchers studied. Namely, the less aerobically fit the children were, the less happy they reported being. Kids who were less fit were also more likely to engage in activities that were bad for their health (especially smoking), and less likely to eat well. In this study, the researchers considered “eating well” to be the Mediterranean diet. Strength, power, and coordination were associated with a happier life, particularly when it came to lower body strength.
One oddity in the results was that grip strength, a test often used to determine total body strength, was positively correlated with increased consumption of alcohol. In other words, the stronger a child’s grip, the more likely they were to consume alcohol. The researchers admitted that results in regards to alcohol consumption have been mixed in the past, but that it seems physical activity may not necessarily protect kids against alcohol consumption. The researchers hypothesized that stronger children are more likely to be involved in team sports, and thus more likely to be exposed to alcohol use through socialization.
For concerned parents and coaches, there is a lesson to learn from the hand grip test. Fitness does appear to protect against smoking, and this is likely due to the well-known effects of smoking on performance. However, children may be less aware of the deleterious effects of alcohol on performance. In addition to educating children on the harmful effects of alcohol on health, it may be important to teach how it can also impact sports performance, a more immediate concern that might better reach youth athletes.
Aside from the hand grip test, fitter and stronger kids tended to be healthier and happier. As important as these results are, we have to acknowledge the difference between correlation and causation. These children might have had good fitness because of some unstudied variable, such as genetics, and for that same reason they also had better attitudes. Although the scope of this study was too limited to determine whether some unknown factor was at play, there is good reason to believe fitness levels can indeed cause, and not just correlate to, greater happiness, fewer health risk factors, and better diet adherence. Fitness fosters a better neurochemical and hormonal balance that, in no uncertain terms, alters your perception of the world for the better.
Youth athletics is a critical component for the health of children, and now we are armed with even more information than before of just how good it is. However, parents and coaches should further safeguard their kids against risk factors by fostering childrens’ interests in health, fitness, and performance.
1. Alberto Grao-Cruces, et. al., “Association of fitness with life satisfaction, health risk behaviors, and adherence to the Mediterranean diet in Spanish adolescents,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000363
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