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Retrospective evaluation of high school sport participation and adult BMI status, physical activity levels, and motivation to exercise.


Participation in regular physical activity (PA) is reported by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (USHHS) to improve both an individual's physiological and psychological health (USHHS, 2000). Physically active adults have a decreased risk for heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, stress, and depression, demonstrating the long-term benefits of sustained physical activity behaviors throughout a person's lifetime (Flegal, Graubard, Williamson & Gail, 2005; Sherry, Blanck, Galuska, Pan, & Dietz, 2010). Physical inactivity is a concern for many health professionals as prevalence rates of overweight and obese adult Americans continually rise. The benefits of a physically active lifestyle are well noted; however, questions still exist concerning factors leading to maintenance of adulthood physical activity (Flegal, Graubard, Williamson, & Gail, 2005). Various types of PA exist and include sports, recreation activities, and exercise. Each type of PA differs among participant age and availability, and presumably contributes to a healthier lifestyle.

Physical activity is defined as body actions produced by skeletal muscles expending energy past physiological requirements needed at rest and include activities such as walking, running, or cycling (Caspersen, Powell, & Christenson, 1985; CDC, 2013). The Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends American adults partake in a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity, preferably every day of the week (CDC, 2010). Children, adolescents, and teens are taught the importance of PA and provided participation opportunities in physical education, sports, and/or recreation activity participation. However, it has been found that the amount of PA decreases as individuals move into adulthood (Kwan, Cairney, Faulkner, & Pullenayegum, 2012). Over the past 20 years, PA recommendations have changed suggesting Americans need to be more active as a result of the high prevalence of overweight and obese individuals (USHHS, 2008).

Presumably, those participating in sports during high school receive large amounts of PA instruction and practice that can potentially positively influence adulthood PA behaviors. Sport participation and performance is centered on skill acquisition and execution. Skills, such as hand-eye coordination, balance and flexibility, are involved in numerous sport-based activities, and therefore, may facilitate transfer to and proficiency in different activities. Adult PA opportunities have become a priority for many communities across the United States offering competitive and non-competitive sport leagues which include bouts of moderate to vigorous activity that meet the criteria associated with PA recommendations (CDC, 2010). Previous studies dating back to 1988 have examined predictors of adult PA and report a link between adults who currently engage in exercise were more physically active as children (Barnekow-Bergkvist, Hedberg, Janlert, & Jansson, 2001; Dennison, Straus, Mellits, & Charney, 1988; Kjonniksen, L., Torsheim, T., & Wold, B., 2008; Yang, Telama, Leino, & Viikari, 1999). Interestingly, a more recent study found that participation in high school sports was the best predictor of physical activity after age 70 (Dohle & Wansink, 2013). In addition, Smith, Gardner, Aggio, and Hamer (2015) found that participation in sport at age 10 was highly associated with participation in physical activity at age 42. The link between childhood PA and adult PA has been well documented; however, the emergence of a strong relationship between participation in high school sport and adult PA has brought a new dimension to the literature. There are clear, perceived benefits of participating in sport during high school, from increased competence to social interaction, but the potential long term benefits related to continued engagement in PA as an adult could be the most rewarding benefit of all.

Sport participation can play an important role in the promotion of PA in young people, however, how this participation influences adult PA is an interesting question to address. These sport experiences may lead to enhanced motivation and perseverance in adults, therefore, increasing PA engagement and thus promoting health including a lower Body Mass Index (BMI). As adult PA levels decrease and BMI's increase, the research literature must address the determining factors behind these changes. It appears that an emerging relationship between high school sport participation and adult PA levels may be able to address some of these issues, however, a more in depth analysis identifying how different activities influence this phenomena will positively influence any future PA interventions. A problem for professionals in higher education is determining factors that contribute to the reduction of adult PA and the associated increase in Body Mass Index (BMI). Previous research has confirmed the benefits of sport participation as a child, but the types of sports that are more beneficial as determinants of adult PA must be explored further.


Motivation is a psychological construct, which has been shown to reinforce action and encourage individuals to achieve a desired goal (Schacter, 2011). Deci and Ryan (1985) developed Self Determination Theory (SDT) to better understand individuals' motivations by looking at three distinct categories; competence, relatedness and autonomy. It has been suggested that optimal functioning is a product of the psychological needs of these three categories serving as a psychological foundation for which motives and behaviors develop. The SDT has become a popular framework for examining motivational determinants in physical activity contexts, with the attempt to identify the underlying influences of participation (Frederick-Recascino, 2002).

Competence has been defined as how an individual interacts with ones environment while mastering challenging tasks (White, 1959). Autonomy refers to a sense of volition and free agency concerning individual behavior choice, and that behavior is perceived to emanate from an internal locus of causality (power to choose) (DeCharms, 1968). Lastly, relatedness refers to how individuals make meaningful connections within one's social environment (need to belong) (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Deci and Ryan (2000) suggest that individual positive experiences associated with autonomy, competence, and relatedness, foster continued engagement in particular activities, such as partaking in team and individual sports.


The term sport is difficult to define because the concept of sport is not concise (McBride, 1975). Sport can be organized, unorganized, competitive or non-competitive activities. For the purposes of this study, sports are considered organized activities that involve physical exertion involving individuals or teams competing against opposition utilizing specific skills (McBride, 1975). Previous research has identified that sport participation as a child can help predict adulthood PA levels (Dohle & Wansink, 2013; Kjonniksen, L., Torsheim, T., & Wold, B., 2008; Smith, Gardner, Aggio, & Hamer, 2015). However, limited research exists on whether individual or team sports have more of an impact on adult PA levels, BMI status, and exercise motivation. The current study assessed current adult PA levels, BMI status, and motivation to exercise as a function of the participants' participation in team and/or individual sports in high school.



Study participation was solicited via email to university employees and students of two mid-sized universities and members of a state health organization (n = 516). The research team was granted access to all university employees' and student email addresses through the Institutional Review Board at both participating universities. In addition, the Executive Director of the state health association granted permission to send out survey solicitation to active members as research collaboration. Data were collected using a questionnaire administered through Survey Monkey[TM]. Participants were emailed the research study cover letter, a description of the purpose of the study, and a link to the questionnaire. Participants were informed that participation was voluntary and they could withdraw from the study at any time. All procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board before data collection. Following data collection, survey responses were uploaded and analyzed in SPSS, Version 20[TM]. Measurement of Physical Activity Motivation

The Psychological Need Satisfaction in Exercise (PNSE) scale was originally developed by Wilson, Rogers, Rodgers, and Wild (2006). The PNSE scale assesses psychological need satisfaction based on Deci and Ryan's (1985, 2002) SDT consisting of 18 items (Perceived competence = 6 items; autonomy = 6 items; relatedness = 6 items). An exploratory factor analysis supported the retention of a 3-factor model and confirmatory factor analysis indicated partial support among genders. Cronbach alpha values report high internal consistency estimates among all three PNSE scales ([alpha] > 0.90) (Wilson et ah, 2006). The PNSE displays psychometric characteristics that render usefulness in the context of exercise. As the original PNSE survey focused on the context of exercise, the current study focused on the context of physical activity. The current study reports alpha values for competence ([alpha] = 0.95), autonomy ([alpha] = 0.94), and relatedness ([alpha] = 0.94). Information obtained from the PNSE allowed investigators to evaluate adult psychological need satisfaction.

Measurement of Physical Activity

Adult physical activity was assessed using the International Physical Activity Questionnaire (IPAQ). Validity concerns surface with self-report physical activity data; however, the IPAQ has been identified as an adequate measure (Madidison et ah, 2007). The IPAQ is internationally accepted as an acceptable tool that has been tested for reliability and validity (Maddison et ah, 2007). The IPAQ short version examines physical activity levels retrospectively of the past seven days and consists of seven questions addressing vigorous and moderate physical activity (Maddison et ah, 2007). Examples were provided for both vigorous and moderate physical activity to ensure participants accurately reported their activity levels. Information obtained from the IPAQ short version allowed investigators to evaluate adult physical activity levels.

Data Analysis

Demographics included participants' age, height (inches), and weight (pounds). Participants were asked whether they participated in team or individual sport(s) as their primary mode of physical activity while in high school based on the definitions and examples provided. Psychological need satisfaction data were scaled by competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Physical activity levels were categorized as vigorous physical activity (days & minutes), moderate physical activity (days & minutes), walking (days & minutes) and sitting time. The number of days was multiplied by the amount of time each individual spends participating in physical activity providing researchers a total amount of activity for each activity level.

An ANOVA analysis was used to compare adult BMI status of participants' who participated in team or individual sports. In addition, an ANOVA analysis was used to compare adult PA levels of participants' who participated in team or individual sports. Pearson correlations were used to examine variable associations between physical activity (IPAQ) and psychological need satisfaction (PNSE) among adults' who primarily participated in team or individual sports in high school. Results were deemed significant at p < 0.05.


A total of 516 participants completed the survey, 147 (28.6%) males and 369 (71.2%) females. A total of 381 (73.8%) participants competed in competitive high school sports. Of the 381 participants who participated in sports, a total of 269 (70.6%) participated in team sports and 112 (29.4%) participated in individual sports (see Table 1). Participants who competed in individual sports had 67 (59.8%) participants in the normal BMI category, which accounted for a significantly higher group (individual sport) percentage compared to team sports (40.9%)(F, 16.25, p < 0.05). Furthermore, team sports accounted for a significantly higher percentage of overall participants in the overweight (F = 14.21, p < 0.05) and obese (F = 12.84, p < 0.05) category (See Table 2). Overall, adults who participated in individual sports reported to have a significantly higher number of individuals in the normal BMI category (F = 16.25, p < 0.05) (see Table 2).

The two exercise motivation constructs competence (r = .361, p < .01) and relatedness (r = .219, p < .01) were found to be the most prominently associated with overall physical activity levels between both individual and team sport participants (see Table 3). ANOVA analysis revealed significance difference of adulthood physical activity levels among individual and team sport high school participants. Participants who competed in individual sports while in high school reported to partake in significantly more days of vigorous physical activity as an adult (F = 5.7, p < .05). Furthermore, participants who were involved in high school team sports report they partake in significantly more minutes of moderate physical activity (F = 5.43, p < .05) and sit (F = 6.33, p < .05) significantly longer during a normal week than participants who were involved in individual sports (see Table 4).


The primary purpose of this study was to compare current adult PA levels, BMI status, and motivation to exercise for participants who participated in team and individual sports in high school. Past research has found that adults who participated in sports while in high school were more physically active as adults (Dohle & Wansink, 2013; Kjonniksen, L., Torsheim, T., & Wold, B., 2008; Smith, Gardner, Aggio, & Hamer, 2015). However, there is limited research on the types of sports that might have an impact on adult PA levels, BMI status, and exercise motivation. A study that analyzed adult participants who reported to participate in 1 of 15 different sports in high school found that adults who participated in cross country while in high school were the most likely to have a normal BMI and participate in at least five or more days of moderate to vigorous exercise per week as an adult (Ball & Bice, 2015).

The current study revealed that participants who participated in individual sports in high school report more individuals in the normal BMI category and partake in significantly more days of vigorous physical activity as adults. These findings supplement and add to the existing literature emphasizing the importance of sport participation in high school and go one step further to identify that participation in individual sports might potentially be more easily transferred into adulthood. It could be postulated that there are some barriers (e.g. you need other people, you need facilities, game opportunities, etc.) to adult PA when people mainly participate in team sports while in high school as compared to individual sports like cross country or track that can be done anywhere with very little prep time. This study does not neglect the importance of team sports, but suggests that schools and communities should consider offering more individual sports/activities and emphasize the acquisition of individual skills associated with individual lifelong activities.

In this study, competence and relatedness were found to be important contributors of adult PA levels no matter if participants participated in team or individual sports. It is important that children and adolescents learn how to positively interact with one's environment to help them master challenging skills (competence) and make positive connections with ones social environment (relatedness) to be successful in sports so these qualities can transfer into adulthood. Sports can provide the collaboration (relatedness) needed to enhance skill attainment and mastery (competence) by giving and receiving feedback, enforcing behavior accountability, and allowing for unique individual skill refinement (Caruso & Wooley, 2008; Mannix & Neale, 2005). Adults may have greater perceived competence, potentially increasing their confidence to participate in other physical activities due to their previous sport exposure.

The motivational constructs of competence and relatedness are associated with many community adult PA programs, which incorporate peer involvement such as group exercise classes, instructor led exercise sessions, hiking clubs, running clubs, etc. Being a part of these community adult PA programs can foster groups of people working toward similar goals and potentially increases adults' PA self-efficacy. The achievement of attaining goals and the social rewards of membership may make participation in structured sports particularly conducive to intrinsic motivation for continued adult engagement in sport and in PA (Smith, Gardner, Aggio, & Hamer, 2015). It is possible that sport participation during high school can instill positive motivational constructs allowing individuals to be more physically active and more comfortable seeking adult PA opportunities that may involve others.


This study is reliant on self-report responses concerning retrospective physical activity levels and motivation, which presents a challenge as participants may have forgotten details of their past PA habits. Data could be misleading due to understanding definitions of moderate/vigorous activity. Another important limitation was location. Surveys were only emailed to participants' from two mid-sized universities. Lastly, potential socially desirable responses should be listed as a limitation if a participant felt uncomfortable reporting low levels of physical activity or motivation rating after being physically active in high school.


Future efforts and research should look to examine what types of physical activities adults partake in and if they are more team or individually oriented. In addition, adults' current participation in team or individual sports could be compared to what they did as an adolescent. Motives for physical activity can potentially change during the process of aging. However, maybe there are adults' who are motivated to do the same activities they did as an adolescent. Exploring these motives could help health professionals understand the reasons why adults choose to partake in the sports or activities they participate in.

Sports have demonstrated that they can have many positive influences on child development and this study isn't trying to neglect the fact that team sports have an important impact on the development of children. Participating in team sports can promote a child's ability to collaborate and teach them respect for their team members (Ozturk, 1998). In team sports children and adolescents have to affiliate with each other more closely to work together in harmony and should be encouraged to take part in team sports to complete their physical and emotional development (Dine, 2011). Team sports can help aid children in the development of many social skills that will be important for the child in the future.

Participants in this study who were physically active adults and participated in sports in high school had a positive association with competence and relatedness. It is important that children and adolescents learn to interact and connect with one's environment so that these skills can help them to have more confidence to partake in PA as adults. In individual sports, team skills can be accomplished if an overall group mentality is being perceived as important by the participants. Cross country and track can be considered individual sports, but in both of these sports there are points awarded to the entire team based on how each individual finishes. Sports can impact a child in many different ways and this study is suggesting that the skills associated with and the ability to complete individual sports might be more transferrable into adulthood.


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James W Ball, Ph.D

Matthew R. Bice, Ph.D

Thomas Parry, Ph.D

Send correspondence to James W. Ball, Ph.D, Assistant Professor, Northeastern Illinois State University, 5500 N. St Louis Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60025,, Phone: 773-442-5539; Matthew R. Bice, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Kearney, 1410 West 26th Street, Kearney, Nebraska 68849., Phone: 308-865-8052; Thomas Parry, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Northeastern Illinois State University, 5500 N. St Louis Avenue, Chicago,Illinois 60025,, Phone: 773-442-4818.
Table 1. Participant Demographics

         N (%)        Mean    SD

Men      147 (28.6)

Female   369 (71.2)


Age                   36.74   15.26

Sports                Team    Individual

                      269     112

Table 2. Analysis of Variance among BMI and Sport type

              Individual Sports   Team Sports

BMI           N (%)               N (%)          F       P

Underweight   5 (4.5) *           1 (.4)         2.884   0.02
Normal        67 (59.8) **        110 (40.9)     16.25   p<0.01
Overweight    22 (19.6)           89 (33.1) **   14.21   p<0.01
Obese         18 (16.1)           69 (25.7) *    12.84   p<0.01

** denotes significance at 0.01

* denotes significance at 0.05

Table 3. Correlation between motivational constructs and physical

                                 Competence   Autonomy   Relatedness

Individual   Vigorous Days       .585 **      0.003      .522 **
Sports       Vigorous Minutes    .449 **      0.015      .408 **
             Moderate Days       .235 *       -0.109     0.163
             Moderate Minutes    0.133        0          0.106
             Physical Activity   .384 **      -0.017     .340 **

                                 Competence   Autonomy   Relatedness

Team         Vigorous Days       .550 **      .141 *     .301 **
Sports       Vigorous Minutes    .415 **      0.026      .208 **
             Moderate Days       .376 **      .159 **    .143 *
             Moderate Minutes    .180 **      0.087      .123 *
             Physical Activity   .361 **      0.078      .219 **

** denotes significance at 0.01

* denotes significance at 0.05

Table 4. Adult physical activity levels among primary high school
sport type

                Individual Sport    Team Sport

                M        SD        M        SD       F        p

Vigorous Days   3.19     2.36      2.64     2.04     5.7      0.017 *
Vigorous Min    49.83    44.09     48.28    45.37    0.175    0.676
Moderate Days   2.52     2.23      2.42     2.17     0.273    0.602
Moderate Min    35.04    35.82     45.04    64.36    5.43     0.02 *
Sitting Time    308.34   170.61    325.97   257.76   6.33     0.012 *

** denotes significance at 0.01

* denotes significance at 0.05
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Author:Ball, James W.; Bice, Matthew R.; Parry, Thomas
Publication:American Journal of Health Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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