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Youth Sports: A Game-Changer in the Fight to End Obesity | Commentary

As we all know, February is Black History month, a time for us to celebrate the contributions of many trailblazing African-Americans, including the athletes who revolutionized their respective sports and impacted the nation. Accordingly, we recognize the contributions of Jackie Robinson, Ernie Davis, Althea Gibson, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and countless others who overcame barriers to enhance their sports.

Black History Month is also a time to reflect on African-American athletes who have overcome adversity and inspired generations to come. We are inspired by the stories of athletes such as Jackie Robinson’s older brother, Mack Robinson, who won the silver medal in the 200-meter dash during the 1936 Olympic Games, finishing second only to the great Jesse Owens.

Despite Mack Robinson’s remarkable accomplishment, questions linger about what he could have accomplished had he been able to enjoy the advantages of other great athletes, including access to first-rate coaching and equipment. Unfortunately for too many of our young aspiring athletes, the disparities Mack Robinson faced are still prevalent today. Communities across our nation lack access to safe places to train, experienced and motivating coaches, and suitable equipment, which contributes in part to our nation’s costly obesity epidemic.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrate that Americans in general do not get enough physical activity. In fact, just 48 percent of all adults and less than three in 10 high school students meet recommended levels of physical activity. Furthermore, a recent study from Los Angeles County showed that adolescents living in low-income neighborhoods are nine time more likely to be overweight than their more affluent peers, in part because of the lack of physical activity.

One of the barriers, particularly in our underserved urban communities, is a lack of access to safe places for physical activity. A CDC report describes the lack of access to safe nearby areas for American children to play and be active as one of the main contributors to our nation’s childhood obesity epidemic. Specifically, the report states that only one in five homes has a park or a fitness or recreation facility within a half mile, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to be physically active.

One of the places where we have seen the physical inactivity and childhood obesity phenomena manifest themselves is in youth participation in sports. Despite increased interest in programs such as those offered through organizations such as the U.S. Soccer Foundation, youth participation in some of the nation’s most popular team sports have fallen since 2008. According to the president of the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association, Greg Nossaman, “High-school basketball participation fell 15 percent during the past five years.”

Youth participation in team sports offers tremendous benefits in helping to prevent chronic disease maintain a healthy weight and improve self-esteem. In fact, according to researchers at Harvard University and INSEAD, one of the world’s largest graduate business schools, a key difference between obesity rates in affluent communities and underserved communities is not how determined by calories consumed but rather by exercise.

Additionally, according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2012, “Influence of Sports, Physical Education and Active Commuting to School on Adolescent Weight Status,” researchers found, “Just seven percent of teens who played three or more sports were obese, along with nine percent who played two sports, and 16 percent who played one sport, compared with 21 percent of teens who don’t play team sports at all.” Furthermore, participation in sports, especially for at-risk youth, can contribute to improved grade-point averages, decreased drop-out rates and higher educational aspirations.

As a nation, we have a choice. We can turn a blind eye to the obesity epidemic, which costs taxpayers over $200 billion each year, according to a study by the Campaign to End Obesity. Alternatively, we can be proactive in ways that will spur future generations to healthier lifestyles.

We must ensure that the federal government recognizes that physical inactivity, from the lack of participation in sports or for other reasons, is a key factor in this epidemic. It’s essential we take steps to eliminate barriers that stand in the way of all children being physically active in order to close the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Let’s give our children access to the resources they need, including education, information and physical infrastructure. The human and financial cost of sitting on the sidelines is much too high.

Game on. Let’s make a difference.

Rep. Marcia Fudge is a Democrat from Ohio. Ed Foster-Simeon is president and CEO of the U.S. Soccer Foundation and member of the Campaign to End Obesity’s Board of Directors.

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