Are Sports Practices Enough Exercise?

By Dev Mishra, M.D., President, Sideline Sports Doc, LLC

We often assume that a child at an organized sports practice is getting “exercise”.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a recommendation in 2008 indicating that for children ages 6 -17, one or more hours of moderate to intense physical activity is required each day for the best health.  If you’re interested you can find a summary of the guidelines here.  The question then is: do kids actually get exercise when they attend a sports practice?

A study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine received a good amount of media attention just before the end of last year and is worthwhile revisiting now that many athletes are starting spring soccer, baseball, and softball.  The study “Physical Activity During Youth Sports Practices” focused on 200 children ranging in age from 7 to 14 years old, playing in San Diego soccer, baseball, and softball leagues.  The study authors looked at the type and amount of physical activity the kids were doing as well as the overall practice time.  Most of the kids practiced two days a week and had one or two games each week.  There are some limitations to the study, namely that the device used to measure activity (called an “accelerometer”) tends to underestimate arm and upper body movement.  That means the baseball and softball players are probably a bit more active than the numbers would indicate, but the results should still cause us to look at practice activity a lot more closely.

There were a number of interesting findings in the study.

  • Only 24% of the kids were active for 60 or more minutes during practice
  • Soccer players were active for about 14 more minutes than baseball or softball
  • Younger children (ages 7 to 10) tended to be more active than older kids
  • Only 2% of softball players met the 60 minute active guideline
  • A considerable amount of time is spent listening to instruction or waiting to take part in a particular drill

So the bottom line is that an organized team sport practice in soccer, baseball, and softball is not enough to meet the suggested amount of physical activity, and it seems to get much more difficult as the kids get older.  In some ways this is not surprising as the younger kids often engage more in “games” rather than structured skill-building sessions.

What can we do to increase the amount of activity our kids get during the course of the week?  I think the first place I’d start is understanding that there are seven days in the week, and parents need to encourage activity outside the formal practice and game sessions.  But after that it comes down to the training session itself.

If you’re the coach it may require some creativity to come up with practice plans that require more moving and playing and less standing around.

  • Re-evaluate your practice plans and look at places you might be able to put more activity in the session.  Could you consider a portion of each practice devoted to conditioning?  How about a portion of each week?  This can be tough, and will need careful planning ahead of the practice.
  • How about using more small group sessions?  In soccer this usually results in more touches on the ball and more movement; in baseball and softball more reps.
  • When you’re delivering instruction is it possible to do this during the course of an exercise rather than having everyone stand around to listen?

These are just some thoughts.  Of course you don’t want to go to the other extreme and make the entire session a pedal-to-the-metal nonstop event either.  There needs to be time to rest and recover otherwise you’ll get fatigue, burnout, and more injuries too.

There are lots of benefits to organized sports participation but it looks like coaches and parents can do a better job of making sure there’smore exercise mixed in with those drills.

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