Sports: Benefits to Participation Throughout a Lifetime

It is common for Symmetry’s therapists to have clients tell us that they “used to be athletes”.  Often, people seem to think that participation in sports as youth athletes has set them up for whatever musculoskeletal aches and pains that they are experiencing later in life.  Someone might say “all that running must have been bad for my knees”, or “the horseback riding that I did as a kid must have been bad for my back.”  We wholeheartedly reject the myth that physical activity is somehow “bad” for people!

Think back to your early childhood memories of physical activity.  You might have walked or ridden your bike to grade school.  You probably ran around with other kids in your neighborhood and climbed trees or rode skateboards or scooters or skates.  You might have participated in youth sports at some level – possibly competing in different sports at different times of year.  You presumably took part in physical education classes and periodic activity challenges such as the Presidential Youth Fitness Program.  Maybe you attended school dances, or marched in the high-school band.   You might have sustained various bumps, bruises, or other injuries along the way.  But these were likely temporary sidesteps in what was generally an active lifestyle.  Why did you do these things?  You were probably not thinking at the time about “trying to stay healthy”.  You were simply engaging in activities that were fun and which provided a connection to peers.  And guess what?  You were probably healthy, fit, and close to your ideal body weight.

Here is a partial list of reasons that parents believe that their children benefit from participation in sports – excerpted from a poll by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

  • Benefits physical health.
  • Teaches discipline & dedication.
  • Helps kids learn to get along with other people.
  • Benefits mental health.
  • Benefits social life.

Wouldn’t all of these benefits for children be benefits for full-grown adults as well?!  Yet according to the same poll, only 1 in 4 American adults continue to participate in sports in their adult life.  Less than half as many adult women play sports as adult men.  The poll also indicates that there is a sharp decline in sports participation among adults as they age.  Reportedly, 70% of middle or high-school aged kids play sports.  But this percentage drops to 40% by age 18-25.   26% of adults aged 26-49 play spots, and only 20% of adults over the age of 50 continue to compete in some fashion.   

News Flash:  it’s not the youth sports that should take the blame for your adult aches and pains.  It’s much more likely that adult musculoskeletal pains are related to inactivity!  The health of bones and muscles and tendons and cartilage is dependent on movement.  We’ve all heard the adage “Use It or Lose It”.  Guess what – it’s true!  A sedentary lifestyle is associated with myriad physical and mental health problems – obesity, cardiac disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and memory loss, for example.  There is ample documentation in the research literature of a range of health professions to support the concept that being physically active is one of the best ways to stay alive.

A common reason that people say that they stop doing things is because they have pain.  But it is a misconception that pain indicates the need to discontinue doing things.  Rather, pain is an indicator that for some reason movement has become dysfunctional.   Correct the movement, and activity becomes more comfortable again.  Wouldn’t it be preferable to have periodic curable musculoskeletal bumps and bruises and injuries rather than an ongoing need to manage the chronic debilitating systemic health conditions related to inactivity?

Another reason that people say that they stop doing things is because they are told that they have some type of body system disorder – perhaps rheumatoid or endocrine disease or a cardiopulmonary condition.  Again, a widespread misconception is that systemic illness or injury is an indicator that one should stop participating in activity.  While on occasion an acute flare-up of a general health issue potentially needs to be addressed with a short interval of a restful recovery, it is almost never true that prolonged inactivity is the best available medical solution or long-term health management strategy. 

Unfortunately, many people tell us at Symmetry that they are not given much – if any – information about what is and isn’t OK to do with regard to physical activity as it pertains to any given individual medical issue – be that a musculoskeletal injury or a broader health disorder.  This lack of sufficient education is a known shortcoming in the current-day American medical system.   Physical therapists are working to improve the standard of medical care as it pertains to physical activity – as a collective of professionals and also as individual clinicians.  For example, the American Physical Therapy Association maintains a website called ChoosePT, which provides health care consumers with information about common health conditions, helpful treatments, and ways to manage health and prevent disease.  On a more individual level, your own personal physical therapist can help you to understand your unique medical profile and to learn about ways in which you can safely participate in activity to help you to attain or maintain optimal physical function and life participation.

Once you understand why it’s a good idea to stay active and how you can do that optimally, Symmetry encourages you to get back to being an athlete!  Why not pick up or continue a sport and reap the benefits of participation?  Here are a couple of helpful websites that can get you started or plugged back in to adult sports activities:

City of Austin’s Athletics Department

Austin Sports and Social Club

Active Cities: Austin

Do you have your own Adult Sports story that you are willing to share?  Please send it to us at  We would love to hear how athletics continue to contribute to your personal well-being!