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The Decline of Sports in America


A recent poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that Americans’ participation in sports declines significantly as they get older. While nearly three in four adults reported playing sports when they were younger, only one in four continued to play as adults.  

The poll, which was part of an ongoing series of surveys, was conducted in early 2015 among a nationally representative sample of more than 2,500 adults. Apart from revealing the sharp decline in physical activity, the poll found that adults who reported exercising were more likely to have higher incomes, more education, and tended to be younger than adults who did not exercise. Men were more than twice as likely as women (35 percent to 16 percent) to say they currently played sports. While there appeared to be a significant gender gap in sports participation among adults, the same was not true for children. In fact, parents of middle school or high school aged children reported that most boys and girls (76 percent and 70 percent, respectively) currently played sports. 

Furthermore, the majority of adults (55 percent) who reported playing sports said they choose to do so primarily for personal enjoyment, while almost one in four do so for health-related reasons, including to improve health, to get into or stay in shape, or lose weight. A majority of active adults also said playing sports has improved their health by significantly reducing stress (58 percent), improving mental health (54 percent), or improving physical health (51 percent). 

So what does this mean for our kids?  

It is increasingly important for parents to make sure their children are involved in physical activity early in life so that kids will be more likely to carry healthy habits into adulthood. The good news is that parents’ decline in interest doesn’t stop them from encouraging their kids to make sports a part of their lives. According to the poll, 76 percent of parents with children in middle or high school say they encourage their kids to play sports. And, while most adults no longer play sports themselves, 72 percent of parents whose children play sports still believe it is very likely or at least somewhat likely that their kids will continue playing or participating in sports when they become adults.  

Additionally, nearly nine in ten parents who have a child participating in sports believe their child benefits a great deal or quite a bit from participating. Specifically, more than eight in ten parents say their children benefit in the following ways: physical health (88 percent), it gives them something to do (83 percent), or it helps them learn about discipline or dedication (81 percent). More than seven in ten parents say that playing sports benefits their kids in learning how to get along with other people as well as their mental health (73 percent), while more than half of parents report that playing sports benefits their children in their social lives (65 percent), giving them skills to help in future schooling (56 percent), and giving them skills to help in a future career (55 percent). 

To read the full report on the poll, click here