Do the benefits of sports participation outweigh the risks?
Youth participate in a flag football game on Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Travis Gershaneck)
WIth fall sports in full swing, some parents may be wondering what the risks and benefits are of involving children, whether in elementary or high school, in sports. Military Health System experts weigh in, assuring parents the health benefits of physical activity far outweigh the risks.
“The health benefits of sports are great, and by taking precautions, you can minimize the risks,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jonathan Roth, a sports medicine physician at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in northern Virginia. Sports have positive effects mentally, physically and socially on children – especially for those in military families, he said.
“While all three categories are important for children, the social aspect is especially beneficial to children in military families,” said Roth. “With regular moves, children often times have to meet new friends at each location [and] sports teams or camps allow children to do activities they enjoy and meet other children with similar interests.”
Children can be involved in sports from a young age. Participating in sports gives children a way to release energy in a more controlled, positive manner, said Roth. From toddler gymnastics to T-ball and soccer, organized sports help teach young children important social lessons – like teamwork, sharing and perseverance.
Dr. Jesse Deluca, a sports medicine clinic chief and associate program director of the sports medicine fellowship at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, said regular physical activity also helps children build cardiovascular fitness and strength.
“You want to build those good, healthy lifestyles for the future because it’s such a benefit to their health if they keep a regular fitness routine,” said Deluca. Exposure to different sports allows children to learn new things, he said.
Before beginning any sport, children and teenagers should be taken to a physician for a health screening or physical. Although the risk of injury is not high in the United States, scheduling a visit with a primary care physician is encouraged, said Deluca. This allows both the parent and the child to address any concerns or questions.
Participation in sports does involve risk, usually of physical injuries. The most concerning injuries include overuse injury, concussion and fractures or tears, said Roth. Overuse injuries, regardless of age, tend to be common as muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones get small injuries during activity.
“Your body heals them over time and reinforces them to make them stronger and prevent injury,” said Roth. “Without adequate rest, your body does not have time to heal these small injuries and they can accumulate over time, leading to an overuse injury.”
Another common worry, particularly in contact sports, is a concussion. If a child has a head injury, no matter how minor, it should be taken seriously and treated appropriately. Fractures can be problematic if they occur around the growth plate (the area of growing tissue near the ends of long bones in children and adolescents). This kind of injury can cause the bone to not heal correctly or not continue growing correctly.
Regardless of the type of injury, Roth encourages parents to talk to their children about speaking up to their coach, trainer or family about any pain they may be experiencing to prevent further damage. Parents and students should also be mindful of competiveness and how it is being fostered in sports. It should be encouraged in a healthy and positive manner without.
“There should be a level of competitiveness but not something that’s so far out there that this is the competition that ends all things,” said Deluca. “We’re trying to build health through a [sport] program and not sacrifice health in order to compete.”