Are Competitive Athletes Getting Enough Physical Activity?

If you are like many families, you have one or more children playing competitive sports. This likely means your child is out playing or practicing at least four times a week. With such a rigorous training schedule how could they not be getting enough physical activity? Well, let’s start by looking at the guidelines.

Recently the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP), in conjunction with ParticipACTION and with support from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), updated the Canadian physical activity guidelines for all age groups. The new recommendations for children and youth are as follows:

For health benefits, children (aged 5–11 years) and youth (aged 12–17 years) should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity daily. This should include:

  • Vigorous intensity activities at least 3 days per week
  • Activities that strengthen muscle and bone at least 3 days per week

I have a client whose daughter plays competitive hockey. She is often on the ice four or five times a week, so surely she must be meeting these guidelines right? Well, if we break it down it looks something like this.

When she plays a game, this consists of about 45 minutes of playing time. Of the 45 minutes she may play one third to one half of that time, depending on how many teammates she has, among other factors. So at absolute maximum she is on the ice for a little over 20 minutes of that time. When she is on the ice, she is not necessarily keeping her heart rate in the moderate to vigorous range for the whole time, depending on what is happening in the game and what position she plays. When the final buzzer goes, she may at best have accumulated 15 minutes or so of adequate effort to meet the guidelines.

When she goes to a practice, she likely spends even less time than that with her heart rate high enough to benefit, as there is instruction time from coaches, and then waiting her turn to do drills. If she is working on something like developing her wrist shot, then she is not getting her heart rate up at all.

The other issue is the one hour game or practice usually involves at least an hour and a half of inactive time around it, allowing for transportation to and fro and getting dressed and undressed. This leaves little time (especially during the week) for other activity.

Even if some competitive athletes do some sort of cross-training at some point during the week, it is still unlikely that during the session they are getting in a full 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise. Add in the inactive time around this session too and you get the picture.

On days when there is no game or practice, competitive athletes are often too burnt out to contemplate going out and shooting hoops in the street with their friends, so that opportunity is lost as well. Often days off are spent catching up on homework or sleep, and playing video games.

This situation applies regardless of what sport our children choose. Whether it be soccer, baseball, fencing, etc. keep track of the actual time they are active and you may be surprised. While as parents we may feel that most of the week is taken up by our children’s competitive sporting events, in the end their actual activity time may not be enough to meet the guidelines. I have seen young competitive athletes who were good at their sport, but were not in particularly good shape.

Contrast today’s routines of homework until dinner time, then racing off to play sports and getting home at bedtime while only getting in about 15 minutes of activity, versus days gone by when children would be running around outside that whole time, only coming in long enough to eat before going back out again until dark. I have little doubt that I was active enough to meet today’s guidelines when I was a kid (I am definitely old enough to be in the days-gone-by category).

Here is some more food for thought. Many athletes who end up competing at a very high level have difficulty incorporating exercise into their daily routine once they stop competing. They know how to train when everything is structured for them and there is a clear objective like the next race, but they don’t necessarily know how to exercise for good health. This article expands on this subject and is quite informative.

Now don’t get me wrong – I am in no way saying that children shouldn’t do competitive sports. In fact, children who do are generally more active than those who don’t. I am simply suggesting that we not become complacent and assume that this provides adequate physical activity now, or leads to good health outcomes when they are adults. There is something to be said for free play with other kids in the neighbourhood with the sole objective of having FUN. People who remain active in adulthood usually do so for one reason – because they enjoy it. Let’s just not forget that.

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