Poll: Three in four adults played sports when they were younger, but only one in four still play

Despite difficult odds, many parents hope their child will become a professional athlete

For immediate release: June 15, 2015

Boston, MA – A new NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll finds that although almost three in four adults played sports when they were younger (73%), only one in four (25%) continue to play sports as adults.

But that decline in interest doesn’t stop parents from encouraging their children to make sports a part of their lives. In fact, almost nine in ten parents whose middle school or high school aged child plays sports (89%) say that their child benefits a great deal or quite a bit from participating in sports.

And, while most adults no longer play sports themselves, the majority of parents (72%) whose child plays sports say it is very likely or somewhat likely that their child will continue participating in sports when he/she becomes an adult. One in four parents (26%) whose high school aged child plays sports also hope their child will become a professional athlete.

When parents were asked about the benefits that their middle school or high school aged child gets from playing sports, more than eight in ten parents whose child plays sports say their child benefits a great deal or quite a bit in his/her physical health (88%) and helping him/her learn about discipline or dedication (81%). More than seven in ten parents say that playing sports benefits their child a great deal or quite a bit in learning how to get along with other people (78%) and his/her mental health (73%). More than half of parents report playing sports benefits their child a great deal or quite a bit in giving him/her skills to help in future schooling (56%), and giving him/her skills to help in a future career (55%).

Parents believe their children benefit from playing sports Among the 72% of parents who said their middle or high school aged child played sports in the past year, % saying child benefited ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a bit’ in the following ways:
Benefits child’s physical health 88%
Gives child something to do 83%
Child learns about discipline or dedication 81%
Child learns how to get along with other people 78%
Benefits child’s mental health 73%
Benefits child’s social life 65%
Gives child skills to help in future schooling 56%
Gives child skills to help in future career 55%

“Sports are a critical component of a healthy community. They help children and adults maintain a healthy weight, teach acceptance and teamwork, and expand opportunity for children living in poverty,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “This poll indicates that we must continue to encourage children to play sports, but just as important, we must find ways to keep adults engaged in sports in order to maintain health and well-being.”

Majority of adults who play sports say it has improved their health

Of those adults who play sports, more than half report that it has reduced their stress (58%), improved their mental health (54%), or improved their physical health (51%) a great deal or quite a bit.

“When adults play sports, it’s about competition, personal satisfaction, and health. More than one in five adults who play sports do so for health-related reasons, and it’s a priority in their lives,” said Robert J. Blendon, Richard L. Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

For adults who play sports, how they play is important to them. The majority of adults who play sports (56%) say that winning is important to them, and the vast majority who play sports (85%) say their performance is important to them.

Women and older adults less likely to play sports

One in four adults (25%) in the U.S. currently play sports. When asked the sport they play most often, adults report playing more than 50 different types of sports. There is a significant gender gap in sports participation among adults, but not among children. Men are more than twice as likely as women (35% to 16%) to say they play sports.

The top five sports played by men most often (including ties) are golf, basketball, soccer, baseball/softball, football, and running or track. The top five sports played by women most often are running or track, baseball/softball, tennis, volleyball, and swimming.

There is a sharp decline in sports participation among adults as they age. While 40% of 18- 21 year olds and 41% of 22-25 year olds currently play sports, only 26% of 26-49 year olds play sports, and just 20% of adults aged 50+ play sports.

Health is the top reason adults exercise today

About half of adults (48%) say they do vigorous- or moderate-intensity exercise on a regular basis. The vast majority of adults who exercise report doing so for health-related reasons (71%), including to improve health, get into or stay in shape, or lose weight. Adults who exercise are more likely to have higher incomes, more education, and tend to be younger than adults who do not exercise.

When adults who regularly did any vigorous- or moderate-intensity exercise in the past year were asked the type of exercise they did most often, the top five most frequently reported forms of exercise were walking (27% of adults who exercise), cardio/aerobic activities (23%), running or jogging (15%), weight lifting (12%), and biking (6%).

“Despite the known health benefits of sports and exercise, more than four in ten Americans haven’t done either in the last year,” said Blendon.

Nearly four in ten lower-income parents hope their child will become a professional athlete

Despite the difficult odds, nearly four in ten (39%) parents with household incomes of less than $50,000 a year say they hope their child will become a professional athlete. Just 20% of parents with household incomes of $50,000 or more a year share this hope.

Parents who are less well-off are also twice as likely to report problems with the costs of their child’s sports compared to parents who are better-off. When parents whose child plays sports were asked about problems that make it difficult for their child to continue participating, about one in three parents (32%) who are less well-off (household incomes less than $50,000 a year) say that sports cost too much, while just one in six parents (16%) who are better-off (household incomes $50,000 or more a year) say that sports cost too much.

(Note: Watch an NPR/RWJF/HCS webcast in July 2015 for expert perspectives on the topic. Visit this link to learn more about the event, watch the live broadcast, and access the on-demand recording once it becomes available. A summer-long series will also air on NPR starting June 15, 2015.)

View the complete poll findings and accompanying charts.


This poll is part of an on-going series of surveys developed by researchers at the Harvard Opinion Research Program (HORP) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR. The research team consists of the following members at each institution:

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis and Executive Director of HORP; John M. Benson, Research Scientist and Managing Director of HORP; Justin M. Sayde, Administrative and Research Manager; and Mary T. Gorski, Research Fellow.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Fred Mann, Vice President, Communications; Carolyn Miller, Senior Program Officer, Research and Evaluation; Brooke Van Roekel, Director Audience Engagement and Marketing; and Joe Costello, Director of Marketing.

NPR: Anne Gudenkauf, Senior Supervising Editor, Science Desk; and Joe Neel, Deputy Senior Supervising Editor, Science Desk.

Interviews were conducted by SSRS of Media (PA) via telephone (including both landline and cell phone) using random-digit dialing, January 29 – March 8, 2015, among a nationally representative probability sample of 2,506 respondents age 18 and older. The interviews were conducted in English and Spanish.

The margin of error for total respondents is +/- 2.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The total sample includes oversamples of two groups: (1) adults who said they played or participated in any sport in the past year (1,249 interviews, margin of error +/- 3.4 percentage points); (2) parents of junior high school, middle school, or high school children (604 interviews, margin of error +/- 5.2 percentage points). In the overall results, these two groups were weighted to their actual proportion of adults nationwide.

Possible sources of non-sampling error include non-response bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Non-response in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases and for variations in probability of selection within and across households, sample data are weighted by household size, cell phone/landline use and demographics (sex, age, race/ethnicity, education, number of adults in household and census region) to reflect the true population. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing, replicate subsamples, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.


For more information:

Todd Datz
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Melissa Blair
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

photo: iStockphoto.com

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health.

For more than 40 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve health and health care. We are striving to build a national Culture of Health that will enable all to live longer, healthier lives now and for generations to come. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at www.rwjf.org/twitter or on Facebook at www.rwjf.org/facebook.

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