Women + Sports = Good (new research confirms)

Conventional wisdom is that sports are good for people.  Whether it was the ancient Greeks who so fundamentally believed this that they started a little tradition called the Olympics, or more current incarnations of this principle such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity in America with a combination of healthy eating and active lifestyles, it seems as a general rule of thumb – sports are good for people and good for society.

However, there has always been this nagging, largely unanswered, question: how good are we talking? Can playing sports cure disease? Can it end violence in schools?  Can it solve the health care issues?  Can it help Israelis and Palestinians get along?  Democrats and Republicans?  Blue Devils and Tar Heels? Does it increase graduations rates?  Literacy rates?  Life expectancy?  Can it decrease domestic violence? Teenage pregnancy?  Poverty?

There is much research that tries to answer these questions, and others.  The general consensuses from the research is, yes – sports have somewhere between a marginally positive effect to a very positive one.   However, a lot of the researched is plagued by problems of self-selection; kids who play sports are probably predisposed to be focused and determined, and probably on average more responsible and confident than the non-sport participant.

However, yesterday, The New York Times health and wellness blog highlighted two very good and recent studies that have keyed into how team sports affect women.

One study comes from Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  “I looked to see what it means to add sports to girls’ lives,” she said. “How does it change things for them?”

Using a very complex analysis (one that my stint in Stat 101 did not cover) and factoring for a number of confounding variables, Dr. Stevenson showed that increasing girls’ sports participation had a direct effect on women’s education and employment. She found that the changes set in motion by Title IX explained about 20 percent of the increase in women’s education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for 25-to-34-year-old women.

A second study by Robert Kaestner, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago asks whether Title IX has made a difference in women’s long-term health.  Doing a series of other complex statistical things, he found that the increase in girls’ athletic participation caused by Title IX was associated with a 7 percent lower risk of obesity 20 to 25 years later, when women were in their late 30s and early 40s.  He argues that while a 7% decline in obesity is modest, there not many public health programs that can claim that type of success.

These are two very interesting studies that are well worth checking out.  Plus, they confirm my hankering suspicion that sports are good for people and good for society.

You can read the full story from Tare Parker-Pope on The New York Times blog here.

You can find Dr. Stevenson’s working paper here.

Dr.  Kaestner’s work – “Title IX, Girls’ Sports Participation, and Adult Female Physical Activity and Weight” is published in this month’s (February 2010) journal Evaluation Review