Thrilling upset finishes helped to conclude another terrific college football regular season. This also promises to be one of the most exciting college basketball seasons in years. Thanks to social media and entire television networks devoted to college athletics, fans can now watch and cheer for their schools more than ever before.
Unfortunately, a study released last week suggests that college sports might not be as good for the athletes who play them.
Health-related quality of life of former college athletes
Researchers at Indiana University compared the health-related quality of life for former Division I college athletes to that of college students who played intramural or club sports or who exercised 3 to 5 times a week. They found that former college athletes scored much worse on scales measuring physical function, fatigue, depression, disturbance of sleep, and interference of their lives by pain compared to nonathletes.
College students who regularly exercise or play intramural, club or recreational sports have health-related quality of life scores greater than the United States population as a whole. While Division I college sports have much more intense training and competition, is there a tipping point at which physical activity does more harm than good?
It’s possible, but the study offers a more plausible explanation for the athletes’ poor future health – injuries.
Are injuries to blame for the poor health of former athletes?
Among the former Division I athletes, 67% suffered major injuries during their careers, compared to only 28% of the recreational athletes. 50% of the Division I athletes suffered chronic injuries, compared to 26%.
The treatment of those injuries might be the real culprit, though. 70% of the former Division I athletes admitted to competing or practicing with an injury during their college careers. Only 33% of the active college nonathletes did so.
Significant injuries, and players trying to return before they have fully recovered from them, might explain their health problems later in life. 40% of the former Division I athletes developed osteoarthritis later in life, while only 24% of the recreational players did. And 2.5 times more Division I athletes developed physical limitations that prevented them from performing their daily activities or exercise.
Exercise helps to lower the risk for many medical conditions, such as hypertension, obesity and diabetes. For cardiovascular disease, playing college sports appears to only protect against it if the former athletes remain physically active. People who were inactive during college but who start exercising regularly have lower cardiovascular risks than former college athletes who are inactive later in life.
That difficulty engaging in regular physical activity due to pain or degenerative conditions might explain their health decline.
Should kids quit playing sports?
I’m not at all advocating that young athletes quit playing sports. The benefits of sports and exercise have been shown over and over. In addition to physical health improvements, kids who play sports have better self-esteem, higher academic achievement, less anxiety and depression, and more. In fact, 95% of the top executives of 75 Fortune 500 companies played high school sports.
If you or your kids love playing sports, encourage them to try to make the college teams, or better yet, earn a scholarship. Just make sure they recognize the potential cost of injuries in those college sports.
Take injuries seriously
At a minimum, college athletes need to take all injuries seriously. Get appropriate treatment, and take the necessary time to recover fully. Don’t rush back to play too soon or play through an injury.
College athletes might sacrifice their ability to exercise or even perform their routine tasks without pain just to return to play a few weeks earlier now.
Do these statistics surprise you? Do you have any suggestions for current or former athletes to maintain their health as they get older? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!
Note: A modified version of this post appears as my sports medicine column in the December 12, 2013 issue of The Post and Courier.
Simon JE, Docherty CL. Current health-related quality of life is lower in former Division I collegiate athletes than in non–collegiate athletes. Am J Sports Med. Published online ahead of print December 6, 2013.