Playing sports: Does it guarantee a healthy weight for young athletes?


youth sports healthy weight nutrition
photo credit: OkiGator via photopin cc

There are many reasons kids play sports—for fun, for the opportunity to be part of a team, to learn how to play a sport, to be physically active, and for some, to help lose or manage weight. On average in the United States, one in three children and teens are overweight. Among young athletes, studies have shown that 26 percent of males and 27 percent of females are overweight.
While being active is always a part of the plan for kids who carry too much weight, there is no guarantee that playing a sport will spur along weight loss.
Several issues exist to complicate and deter weight loss in the sports setting:
The Food Scene: Studies have shown that young athletes eat more, and healthier, than their non-athlete peers. However, if an athlete is not participating in a high energy burning sport, like swimming or soccer, this "eating more" may cause weight gain. Excess calories eaten by young athletes primarily come from two sources: sweetened beverages like soda, sports drinks and juice and fast food.
Level of Physical Activity: The energy burn related to playing sports may not be as high as we all like to think. Sports like baseball don't burn as many calories as running or rowing. Young athletes may sit on the sidelines and don't burn as much energy as teens, who may have longer practices and games and get more play time. Studies have shown that young athletes eat more when they burn more calories, and this alone may compensate, or even over-compensate, for activity.
Competing Food: The food venues at sporting events do not help the young athlete eat for sport or health. Candy, soda, chips and much more are available at the concession stand or brought in by parents. The snack foods eaten may tally up to 300-500 calories or more! Many children aren't burning that calorie level in their sport. Food marketing doesn't help either, making associations between food products, such as sports drinks, and playing sports.
To get sports to work for the heavier child, try these pointers:

  • Have a team snack policy in place. Fruit and water is best for most kids and teens playing sports. Some don’t need anything but water and a regularly scheduled meal.
  • Conduct a nutrition seminar for your team. This allows everyone to be on the same page with calorie balance related to the sport and appropriate foods.
  • Let regular meals and one or two snacks provide most calories. No need to get fancy with pre- and post-exercise snacks unless you've got a serious teen or elite athlete on your hands.
  • Don't fall prey to concessions, tempting "rewards" of food after competition, or the sports drink hype—these will almost always counter-balance any good accomplished by physical activity.

Overall, playing sports can be beneficial to heavier children because it helps them be physically active. However, the role of sports in managing extra weight is limited by unhealthy foods and the amount of energy burned related to the sport. Remember: watch out for the temptations that may derail all the positive aspects of exercise.

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