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Team Sports and The Overweight Child: New Study Offers Hope

Stanford Sports to Prevent Obesity Randomized Trial (SPORT)

Participating in team sports is a wonderful way for kids to have fun, build skills and confidence and stay in shape all at once. While today’s pace of afterschool life can be maddening at times, these benefits of team sports make the extra effort worthwhile. The problem is that the kids who need to exercise the most, overweight and obese children, are not taking part in these programs because they feel too self-conscious around kids of normal weight and often find the current pace of team sports a daunting challenge.

For weight loss, obesity experts often suggest special programs just for obese kids to help them bond with a peer group and tackle their unique issues, including exercise. A new study, called SPORT (The Stanford Sports to Prevent Obesity Randomized Trial), designed a team sports program around this concept with very promising results. The goals were simple: get overweight kids active in sports, having fun and feeling comfortable, while losing weight at the same time. In SPORT, the kids who participated did just that. They not only had fun but their BMIs (body mass indices) decreased.

SPORT was run in a low-income community for kids grades 4-8 with BMIs above the 85 percentile. 21 kids were chosen and divided into two study groups: a health education arm and a health education with a soccer arm. Kids in the soccer arm were found to have a statistically significant drop in their BMIs.

Although the study size is very small, SPORT is a very important study because it demonstrates that a very simple model, team sports, can be used to help obese kids control their weight. As the study discussion points out, current weight loss programs are costly and not readily available in all communities. And, more than that, kids who are overweight, do not feel comfortable participating in currently available team sports because of the peer issues with normal weight kids and the exercise issues they experience due to their weight. The study authors assumed correctly that these kids would want to participate in youth sports and that seems to be the key to success for the kids and for the communities to offer a successful and affordable program.

SPORT echoes what we know about overweight and obese kids and now offers a team sports model to build upon for other sports and communities. While the sample size of kids was small, SPORT reminds us that team sports have to be tailored to the population and that sports programs must meet the needs of all kids. SPORT also reminds us that traditional team sports are not for all kids and that some special groups of kids, like obese kids, need special sports programs because their sports needs are different from most kids.

SPORT reminds us of the importance of peer groups for all kids and that overweight kids, like normal weight kids, feel more comfortable around their own peer group. All kids thrive and do best when around kids like themselves and overweight kids are no exception. Where sports are concerned, SPORT reminds us that overweight kids need programs tailored to their needs. We can’t expect them to participate with kids of normal weight until their exercise endurance is increased. A program designed for overweight and obese kids must take this into account and have coaches understand the special exercise needs of this group, including the unique behavioral and emotional needs.

This study is a good reminder for parents that overweight kids don’t view themselves normally. As parents, we sometimes push our kids into situations with their peers that are perhaps a bit too socially challenging. With obesity and sports, this is one area that parents have to walk before running. They have to be careful of the reasons for signing up their child for a sport and be sure the child is played. And, coaches need to start understanding the courage it takes for a child to join a team while over weight or obese. It is very important that this child get playing time, as it is for every child.

This study also highlights the importance of special programs for special populations. Kids sometimes need that even if they can’t articulate it. There is a reason for those stereotypes of the fat kid sitting on the bench in movies…no child wants to be that kid and that is the image most overweight kids have in their minds when they ponder joining a sports team. Keep in mind, we have a “must win” society. Until youth sports changes a bit more to get kids playing just for the fun of it, we have to be the ones to look out for our kids' best interests. Overweight kids have enough to deal with day to day. Let’s not make it worse by pushing them continually into situations they do not want to be in. But, let’s do try and find more situations they desperately crave – like more sports programs with kids just like themselves.

Finally, SPORT was initially piloted in a low-income community but we need to remember that the emotional and athletic needs of obese kids are the same across all socio-economic strata. The lessons learned in SPORT are applicable to Everytown USA and that is what we have to keep in mind for all our obese children. Team sports must meet the needs of all kids in all communities and even communities with greater economic resources than inner-city, low income communities, have to be mindful of providing for all kids. There are many inactive kids in middle class communities, too. And, in those communities, the high pressure nature of team sports may be a large part of the reason why those overweight kids do not want to participate. A SPORT program would have great benefit for these kids.

So, while small is size and scope, SPORT is huge in the lessons learned for us about the team sports needs for overweight and obese children. As parents and coaches, making sure these kids are played is the first goal but making sure they are having fun is a close second. If those two components are in the program, the child will succeed and all their emotional and health goals will be met.

Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD is a pediatrician living in the Boston area and the founder and Editor-In-Chief of www.Pediatricsnow.com.

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