College Sports Can Hurt In The Long Run

In February 2014, researchers Simon and Docherty published a study showing that former NCAA Division I athletes scored lower on health-related quality of life surveys than individuals who participated in moderate exercise in college.

Simon and Docherty surveyed adults ranging from 40-65 years old who were alumni of a large midwestern university to understand how their participation in varying degrees of physical activity has influenced them later in life.  The individuals surveyed fell into two groups; former NCAA Division I athletes, and individuals who partook in physical exercise through intramural, club, or other recreational activities, 3-5 times per week during college. Simon and Docherty found that individuals in the DI athlete group had a lower health-related quality of life than the non-athlete group, according to surveys.

The researchers used the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS) survey to measure health-related quality of life.  This survey measures quality of life based on 5 sets of criteria, which are physical function, fatigue, pain, emotional distress, and social function.  In addition, participants filled out a demographic questionnaire, which provided researchers with information about history of injuries and possible long-term effects, amount of physical activity at the time of surveying, and any new diagnoses since college, such as osteoarthritis.  The researchers were interested in these parameters because restrictions in activity due to chronic conditions, such as arthritis, can take a toll on the quality of life a person experiences.

A trainer inspects an injured football player. Injuries are common in sports, but can have long-lasting effects if proper recovery measures aren’t taken.

This research was fueled by previous research showing that athletes who participate in college level athletics may experience continued stress and increased vulnerability to injury as a result of rigorous training schedules.  Simon and Docherty confirmed this finding in the present study.  They found that 40% of the athlete group reported a diagnosis of osteoarthritis, while only 24% of the non-athlete group had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis.  Also, 70% of the former Division I athletes reported that they had practiced on an injury, compared to a mere 33% of non-athletes who exercised with an injury.

Moderate exercise has been proven to decrease the risk of many diseases, including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and psychological conditions.  However, unless muscle function and tone are maintained throughout life, intense participation in certain activities has also been linked to joint and spine degeneration.

Overall, Simon and Docherty found that the previous Division I athletes scored worse on the five criteria tested in the PROMIS survey, and thus had a lower health-related quality of life than the individuals who participated in moderate physical activity in college.  However, when compared to the total U.S. population, the athlete group only scored worse on 2 areas of criteria, while the non-athlete group scored better on 3 of the criteria.  Therefore, Simon and Docherty’s research supports the idea that moderate exercise is beneficial to physical and mental health, whereas intense participation in a sport can detract from the beneficial aspects of exercise.

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Source: Simon, J. E., & Docherty, C. L. (2014). Current health-related quality of life is lower in former Division I collegiate athletes than in non–collegiate athletes.The American journal of sports medicine42(2), 423-429.

About Lydia Marks