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Fit in 50 years: Participation in High School Sports Best Predicts One’s Physical Activity after Age 70

Not only does physical activity reduce the risk of chronic disease and premature death, it also improves emotional, cognitive, social and psychological function in old age. Relationships between physical activity at a young age and in older age is often presumed, but lacks scientific evidence. This research aims to contribute information to the topic, by examining various long-term determinants of physical activity and health. Specifically, we focused on how young men’s physical activity relates to activity and health in old age.

A sample of 712 World War II veterans were asked to complete a questionnaire on background and personality topics regarding the time before and right after the war, and their current physical activity level. Respondents were asked a wide range of background questions such as date of birth, how many years they were married to their first spouse, size of the town where they were raised, level of education, credit card use, and whether they were a member of a medical HMO. Finally, veterans were asked about their health and reported how many times they visited their physician in the past year.

Men who played varsity sport in high school were more likely to be physically active in old age. In addition, respondents who were more adventurous were also more physically active. Varsity sport was inversely related to visits to the physician; thus, men who played varsity sports visited the doctor less often. Additionally, men who were heavy smokers in 1946 visited the doctor more often, fifty years later, than men who were non-smokers in 1946. 

These results revealed one critical youthful predictor of whether a man would be physically active after the age of 70: participation in high school varsity sports. To our knowledge, no study has documented an influence of varsity sport on later physical activity over such a long time period, especially in a population that had already been prescreened as healthy and physically fit at a young age. High school varsity sport is not only related to activity levels in old age, but also to health status in old age. Smoking was another behavioral variable that showed a strong influence on health. Individuals who were heavy smokers immediately after the war reported more frequent present-day doctor visits than non-smokers, pointing to the importance of public health interventions aimed to prevent smoking.

These findings offer some compelling suggestions about how to target young adults at risk for long-term adult inactivity, chronic diseases, and premature death including support and growth of high school athletic programs. It has been noted that physical education classes may be the only opportunity for many adolescents to engage in weekly physical activity. Another suggestion is to promote other forms of relatively vigorous exercise and physical education classes across grade levels. Finally, parents and other caregivers play a role in encouraging children to be active, including sports leagues and other exercise activities. Less competitive children can be steered away from the more competitive sports and guided towards non-competitive forms of running, dance, swimming, weight lifting, or martial arts.