Diversity is key to lifelong physical fitness

All those early mornings at the rink or the gymnasium won’t necessarily benefit your child in the long run, says a new study by a York University researcher. The study found that athletes who train in one area as kids don’t necessarily get a jump-start on a long life of physical activity – in fact, it’s just the opposite.

Right: Athletes who train in one area as kids don’t necessarily get a jump-start on lifelong physical activity

“This study clearly shows the benefits of diversifying at a young age,” says study author Joe Baker, a professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science. “When you diversify, there is a greater likelihood of staying involved in sport and exercise across the lifespan.”

His study of top-ranking “Ironman” triathlon competitors showed that athletes develop many of the same generic abilities through performing a range of sports in their youth, and also develop the intrinsic love of sport and physical activity that is associated with lifelong involvement.

“Much previous research indicates that participation in physical activity peaks at around 13 years old and then rapidly declines,” Baker says. “This presents a serious problem for the long-term health of Canadians. We should be exploring alternative models of sport development where skill development does not run counter to enjoyment. “

In previous studies, he has found negative impacts to early specialization, including increased rates of dropout. He says that the push to get children to specialize in one sport very early on is based on outdated ideas about athleticism and how sports skills are acquired.

In the case of triathletes’ athletic development, they did not train specifically in the areas of swimming, cycling or running during their childhood or teen years, but participated in a wide range of other sports; training in these areas came during late adolescence and early adulthood.

But what about athletes in sports other than triathlon?

“Other studies from our lab have shown that the assumed benefits of specialization (e.g., doing more focused training to get a ‘jump start’ on competitors) are largely an illusion and reinforce the conclusion that for most sports there are no benefits to specialization, only negative consequences,” says Baker.

“The early specialization approach favoured by many sport programs has been linked to increased injury, decreased enjoyment and, perhaps most importantly for athletes, a reduction in the length of an elite athlete’s career.”

The study, “Patterns of Early Involvement in Expert and Non-expert Masters Triathletes”, is co-authored by Queen’s University professors Jean Côté and Janice Deakin. It is forthcoming in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport.