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How Sports Help Decrease the Risk of Teen Substance Abuse

We all know sports are good for our bodies and help us learn important life lessons, but do we know about the impact of sports participation on decreasing the risk of teen substance abuse? Sports have you covered there too. The benefits of sports are numerous and can impact our lives in profound ways. This is not to say that just because you play a sport or are physically active you are suddenly no longer at risk for substance abuse. The relationship between sports participation and substance use is complex; however, studies do show a reduced risk in those who play sports versus those who do not.

There are many aspects to substance abuse and the areas we will focus on here are smoking, smokeless tobacco and illicit drug use. These particular forms of substance abuse have been studied and showed a lesser chance of being abused if the child participates in sports. When teen girls abuse substances there are a host of negative consequences that are damaging to their immediate and long-term health, safety and well-being. While sports it seems can have a buffering effect against some kinds of substance abuse, gender further complicates the equation but for our purposes we will focus on teenage girls.

At 480,000 deaths a year in the United States, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death for Americans. There are many factors that contribute to why a teenage girl may pick up smoking with the most prominent being if they have friends or family members who smoke, suffer from depression or low self-esteem or if they perceive smoking as a weight control strategy. Sports can help to counteract these factors by providing girls confidence in themselves and a strong body-image, as well as making girls more reluctant to smoke because it may compromise their athletic performance due to reductions in lung function.

In the Foundation’s research report ‘Her Life Depends On It III’, a national study of U.S. public high school students found organized sports participants were 22% less likely to smoke cigarettes and that the more heavily involved a girl is in sports the less likely she is to smoke. Sports help keep girls active and make them feel like a part of a team, which in turn can lead to a sense of responsibility towards others along with the desire to be their healthiest and perform their best.

Another substance widely abused by U.S. youth (12.8% of high school boys and 2.2% of high school girls ), is smokeless tobacco, also known as snuff, chew, dip, snus or “spit” tobacco. Smokeless tobacco seems to be one of the “few forms of substance use conventionally associated with athletic participation, partly as a result of corporate sponsorship of sporting events, such as auto racing and major league baseball.” This can give teens the sense that smokeless tobacco is acceptable because they see professionals in their sport using it, putting these teens at an elevated risk of trying or regularly using smokeless tobacco.

While female athletes report lower rates of having used smokeless tobacco than their male athlete peers, it is important that we make our girls aware of the risks of using smokeless tobacco and communicate openly with them. Sports can help foster this communication by providing comfortable scenarios to talk, such as car rides to games or practices, and providing a platform of trust.

Alcohol is a similar substance that falls into a tricky category as it still remains the long-standing drug of choice among teenage girls and yet, many studies find female athletes may be more likely than their non-athlete peers to engage in problem drinking.

Illicit drug use is especially of concern when it comes to substance abuse as it contributes to “escalating healthcare costs, loss of worker productivity, homelessness, school failure, vehicular accidents, crime, unintended pregnancies, and domestic violence.” One way sports helps prevent teens from using illicit drugs is simply the fear of being kicked off a team, not being allowed to play or losing a scholarship.

Sports provide tremendous benefits and can steer girls in the right direction. Through sports, girls gain a positive body image because they provide feelings of competence and a physical effect on the metabolism. Female athletes also report a higher self-esteem due to a higher satisfaction with their bodies, a greater feeling of self-worth and a sense of physical well-being. When girls participate in sports they are provided with a better knowledge of health risks because they are surrounded by other people, such as coaches, teammates and trainers, who are living healthily and can educate them.

Some research suggests that girls may be at a higher risk of illicit drug use than boys because they are more susceptible to social influences, such as partner, peer or parental drug use. This statistic changes though when girls participate in sports, showing lower rates of drug use by female athletes compared to their non-athlete peers. These girls involved in sports are seeking to maximize their athletic performance and have a strong support for healthy decision-making. By participating in athletics, girls are provided a framework for supervision of free time and involved in a network of individuals, such as coaches, teammates and health professionals, to who illicit drug use is disapproved of and not tolerated.

Sports give girls the tools to succeed throughout life, whether that is personally, academically or professionally. When girls participate in sports, they are given so much more than mental and physical health benefits, they are given a focus, taught to believe in themselves, introduced to a network of people, learn important morals and values and much more.

1. Staurowsky, E. J., DeSousa, M. J., Miller, K. E., Sabo, D., Shakib, S., Theberge, N., Veliz, P., Weaver, A., & Williams, N. (2015). Her Life Depends On It III: Sport, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls and Women. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.
2. Ibid., 63
3. Ibid., 64
4. Ibid., 65
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., 67
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., 69
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., 70

Photo Credit: Brent Drinkut/The Star