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Retirement-age fitness predicted by high school sports participation

Health behavior researchers have found that fit and healthy young men who participated in high school and college sports were also more likely to be physically active when they reached their 70s.

The study analyzed survey responses from 712 veterans who had fought in World War II and gotten through it in good health without wounding. Before conscription into service, all the American men had been screened for good health and fitness.

The best correlation with activity levels reported when the men reached an average age of 78 turned out to be whether, in their youth before the war, they had chosen to participate in sports.

The authors, publishing the results of their “Fit in 50 years” study in BMC Public Health, found:

“The single strongest predictor of later-life physical activity was whether [a young man] played a varsity sport in high school, and this was also related to fewer self-reported visits to the doctor.”

The researchers, including Brian Wansink of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, say the men are an accurate standard model for all social backgrounds since World War II service was compulsory, excluding men only by fitness and health.

Because this resulted in a study population of stronger physical health than among civilians, findings about later activity have not been confounded by ill health, in contrast with prior studies, note the authors.

Retirement activity ‘not related to personality’

“In contrast to prior beliefs, self-rated personality profile as a young man had little predictive influence on later-life physical activity,” the authors conclude.

The personality traits measured by the study included whether veterans considered themselves to be:

  • Self-disciplined
  • Fond of routine
  • Spontaneous
  • Adventurous
  • Comfortable taking risks
  • High in self-worth, or
  • More dominant, restless or self-centered.

The study also took into account “several background, behavioral, and personality variables” and found retirement-age activity was independent of these, too.

The wide range of background questions for survey respondents included the following variables:

  • Number of years of marriage to a first spouse
  • Size of town they were raised in
  • Level of education
  • Credit card use, and
  • Whether they had health insurance membership.

‘Compelling reasons’ not to cut sports

The study paper, co-authored by Dr. Simone Dohle, professor of consumer behavior at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, calls for organized sports to be targeted for health benefit. The publication concludes:

“These findings offer some compelling suggestions about how to target young adults at risk for long-term adult inactivity, chronic diseases, and premature death.

In particular, these are youth who are not involved in organized sports (such as varsity athletics).”

“Even in an era of shrinking school budgets,” the authors add, maintaining or enhancing high school athletic programs should be a priority.

American football teams are among sportspeople backing Let’s move, an initiative launched by the first lady and part of an action plan from President Barack Obama’s taskforce on childhood obesity.

One of the campaign’s videos from YouTube is below, hearing inspiration from Baltimore Ravens players with their favored forms of exercise.

The BMC analysis of the war veterans’ activity cites a book by American professor of history, George Flynn, who wrote that World War II conscription included every walk of life: “the chemist and the street cleaner, the physicist and the plumber, the biologist and the bookie.”

The US Selective Service System called up 19 million men, according to Professor Flynn, but rejected 9 million men failing examinations by both local physicians and army induction centers.

Written by Markus MacGill

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