Intercollegiate athletics require young athletes to put in long hours of intense training day after day. This physical activity clearly aids their power, speed and overall skill. It probably improves their physical and emotional health as well. Are these health benefits of sports maintained later in life? Also, are former college athletes more likely to exercise regularly than non-athletes?

A new study by Shawn C. Sorenson, PhD, CSCS and others compared exercise patterns and cardiopulmonary health among former college athletes and non-athletes. This study, recently published in the journal Sports Health, surveyed 496 students and alumni at the University of Southern California.

How much exercise do former college athletes get?

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Exercise patterns and health findings for former college athletes

As you might expect, current college athletes got far more exercise than those students who didn’t play sports. They averaged greater than 15 hours per week, compared to about four hours per week for non-athletes. As such, 86% of college athletes met the American College of Sports Medicine recommendations for weekly exercise – over 30 times higher than non-athletes.

On the other hand, when the researchers looked at former athletes and compared them to non-athletes of the same age, gender and other characteristics, these exercise differences no longer existed. Both former athletes and non-athletes averaged about the same exercise later in life. While greater amounts of exercise in later years seem to improve cardiopulmonary health and lifespan, there appeared to be no significant health benefits from the exercise obtained solely from the sports during their college careers.

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Take home message about former college athletes

It seems imperative that everyone exercises regularly for all kinds of health benefits. While playing college sports has a tremendous number of benefits, it doesn’t seem to improve health later in life unless the athletes keep active.

Even though you no longer play competitive sports, you can play in recreational leagues. You can run or lift weights daily. You can always find ways to exercise. Even if an old injury make some forms of exercise difficult, you can modify your training to meet weekly exercise guidelines.

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Sorenson SC, Romano R, Azen SP, Schroeder ET, Salem GJ. Life span exercise among elite intercollegiate student athletes. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Published online ahead of print May 9, 2014.