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Happy, healthy children develop on the playing field

Playing a team sport at an early age can improve the health and wellbeing of children, particularly for young girls.

Girls who take up a team sport before the age of eight and continue for at least two years are likely to be healthier, have better relationships and do better at school, University of Wollongong (UOW) researchers have found.

A two-year longitudinal study by UOW’s Early Start Research Institute (ESRI) of more than 4000 children aged between 8 and 10 found that participation in sports is associated with a greater quality of life during childhood, particularly for girls.

Benefits associated with those who played sport at least once per week for three months during the study period included higher levels of quality of life relating to their psychological, social, emotional and school functioning.

In childhood, low quality of life measures are associated with chronic conditions and diseases such cancer, heart disease and type 1 and 2 diabetes while sports participation in general is linked with better self-esteem, more positive social interactions and a reduction in depressive symptoms in children and adolescents.

The research team, led by Research Fellow Dr Stewart Vella, used data collected in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), a partnership between the Department of Social Services, the Australian Institute of Family Studies and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In the LSAC study, children’s parents, usually their mother, completed questionnaires when children were aged 8-9 years, and again 24 months later.

In addition, the height and weight of the child was recorded as well as the using the parents’ postcode as measure of socio-economic position.

The UOW researchers analysed the results across four scales that provided measures of physical, social, emotional and school functioning.

Notably, the benefits were greater for girls than for boys and the benefits gained from sports were only apparent if children start participating early, before age 8, and maintain that participation for at least 2 years.

“For example, if a child was to drop out of sports, benefits to quality of life are lost,” Vella said.

Vella said it appeared that the social benefits of sport underpin the extra benefit for girls.

“Girls who participate in sports have higher social functioning than girls who do not participate,” he said. “However, we need to investigate this a little further before we can make firm conclusions about these sex differences and any potential reasons why they appear.”

Vella said the study showed team sports, such as soccer, football, and cricket, are more beneficial than individual sports.

“There are no differences between team and individual sports in terms of physical health benefits – both are good,” he said. “However, team sports provide greater opportunities for the development of social skills.

“They may also underpin greater social support networks and thereby protect children against psychological problems such as depression.”

Vella said that while the study showed that sport participation had a positive impact on health and quality of life, not all sports were equal.

“We need to find out what sporting programs lead to the best outcomes for children and why. This includes the design and implementation of sporting programs, including the type of sport, time in sport, physical activity provided by sport, and parent-involvement.”

The research was published in the The Journal of Pediatrics.

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