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Are young people active enough? Data from nine different sports in Finland

Sports club participation contributes strongly to accumulating the recommended amount of physical activity for good health.

Sports clubs are a popular leisure-time activity for children and adolescents in Nordic countries. In Finland, 69% of 7-14 year-olds participate actively in sports clubs. However, physical activity levels and sports club participation decline as people get older. 

Although sports club participation helps to attain the recommended amount of physical activity, only one out of five adolescents participating in sports clubs was found to be physically active for 60 minutes each day. 

The recommended daily physical activity

The recommended physical activity amount for adolescents is a minimum of about 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) daily. My research at UKK Institute in Finland found that this target was reached by 85% of sports club participants and 45% of non-participants in Finland. Therefore, sports club participation strongly contributes to accumulating the recommended amount of physical activity for health. 

Adolescents participating in soccer, basketball and cross-country skiing attained the highest MVPA on training days. In the same sports, on training days, males spent more time being physically active than females. Males and females participating in these sports were similarly active during non-training days. 

SportMVPA time during training days (minutes)MVPA time during non-training days (minutes)
Soccermales 141*”
females 100*”
males 63
females 59
Floorballmales 113″
females 104″
males 78
females 61
Basketballmales 153*”
females 109*”
males 60
females 53
Ice hockey #males 113″males 77
Skating #females 88females 66
Gymnasticsfemales 83females 46
Track and fieldmales 116″
females 92″
males 58
females 73″
Orienteeringfemales 99″females 57 min
Cross country skiing #males 129*”
females 100*”
males 88 min”
females 59 min 
Non-participantsmales 77
females 71
males 61 min*
females 57 min*

Table 1.
Key: * significant difference in time between males and females (p<0.05)
“ significant difference in times between sports-club participants and non-participants
# sport is not always performed on foot, which underestimates the amount of vigorous physical activity.

Physical activity monitoring as a part of coaching

Athletes are recommended to have at least one day per week without training or competition. The percentage of sports club participants accumulating 60 minutes of MVPA on all but one measuring day was 49%, and only 20% attained at least 60 minutes of MVPA daily. Walking or cycling are both good ways to accumulate MVPA on non-training days. This can help in quicker recovery from training and maintaining physical fitness. 

It is well known that regular physical activity improves physical fitness. Good physical fitness is often associated with a reduced risk of injury and illness. In competitive sports, an important area of research is the effect of training load and its changes on the risk of injury and illness of athletes. Physical activity monitoring is used at an individual and team level as a part of training load assessment. 

It should be noted that physical activity monitoring does not provide information about how strenuous the activity is for the individual. Thus, it should be used together with other training load indicators. Future studies are recommended to evaluate the amount and intensity of physical activity during coach-lead and independent training sessions as well as time outside of practice.

Accelerometry provides objective data on physical activity

This study is a part of the Finnish Health Promoting Sports Club Study, which uses a settings-based approach to study the health promotion activity of sports clubs and the health and physical activity of participating adolescents. 

We measured the physical activity for one week of 332 14-17-year-old adolescents participating in sports clubs in Finland using an accelerometer that is worn on the hip of participants. The results were compared with 139 age-matched adolescents who were not sports club participants. Both summer and winter sports, as well as team and individual sports, were included in the study. Physical activity was reported using the one-minute exponential moving average. 

Chart showing data on physical activity
Figure 1: Comparison of the length of MVPA bouts between training and non-training days among adolescents participating in organised sports and non-participants. Significant differences between training and non-training days are indicated with a star.
s = seconds.

The length of physical activity bouts reflected the characteristics of the sport and the type of training that was being carried out at a given time. For example, the physical activity bouts of athletes participating in endurance sports were longer on training days than on non-training days, and floorball players’ training consisted of shorter physical activity.

The method used to measure physical activity in this study underestimates the amount of vigorous activity in sports that are not performed on foot, such as skating and skiing. However, a significant amount of training in these sports is performed on foot.

In conclusion, adolescents participating in organised sports accumulate more physical activity than non-participants as expected. This was observed in them meeting the physical activity recommendation and the total amount of physical activity at different intensities. 85% of sports club participants reached the recommendation of an average of at least 60 min of MVPA per day, while only half of non-participants reached recommended levels. As such, sports club participation is a fantastic way to push youth to reach recommended amounts of physical activity for health.

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Journal Reference

Toivo, K., Vähä-Ypyä, H., Kannus, P., Tokola, K., Alanko, L., Heinonen, O. J., et al. (2022). Physical activity measured by accelerometry among adolescents participating in sports clubs and non-participating peers. European Journal of Sport Science, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2022.2103740 

Kerttu Toivo

Dr Kerttu Toivo is the chief physician at Tampere Research Center of Sports Medicine in the UKK-institute in Finland. She is a specialist in Sports and Exercise Medicine and a sports physician for the national teams in cross-country skiing, ice-hockey, and canoeing. Her doctoral degree centred on periodic health examinations in young athletes, comparing health, physical activity, and sports injuries between adolescents participating in sports clubs with non-participants.

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