Discussion: 3 in 4 Adults used to play sports, but now only 1/4 do. What can we do as PE teachers to change this narrative?

For this blog post I wanted to discuss and talk about an article about the decline in sports participation in adults compared to adolescents. This one statistic is a huge reason I do not teach a huge sports based curriculum but rather a fitness based curriculum with sports intertwined where appropriate. This statistic and all the implications that come with it were eye opening to me. If adults aren’t participating in sports, and they don’t know how to be active other than sports, this is why we have a pandemic worldwide with obesity. How as physical educators can we do our part and help change this? Lets talk about it in this post.

In this article titled “Poll: Three in four adults played sports when they were younger, but only one in four still play”, was researched and written by NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The first numbers they break down were the overall numbers of how many adults participated in sports when they were younger (73%) versus the number who still participate (25%). I found it interesting that these same adults polled also said they believe their children who currently participate in sports, will continue to do so when they are adults (72% said this). Nearly all the parents polled also believed sports were critical to their child’s physical and mental health, among other benefits. I of course agree with all of the above, sports can be vital to our youth, but how do we encourage the ones who sports isn’t for them to be active, and how do we keep these children engaged in activity past high school? I think that Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said it very well when she said, “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.” I will say I don’t think it’s feasible to say adults will continue to participate in the “traditional” sports we think of (basketball, football, soccer, etc). Those sports are hard on aging bodies and require a lot of contact. Instead lets focus on lifetime sports like: tennis, golf, outdoor games, walking/jogging, etc.

According to the poll, “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.” This is a huge decline as individuals get older. I believe it’s due to the fact that these aging individuals aren’t able to participate in sports due to many different factors. So how can we teach them at a younger age things they CAN do as they age?

According to the poll 48% of adults participate in exercise on a frequent basis. This number seems high to me when I think of adults that I know, but we will go with it. Although I like that number being higher than I thought, what about the 52% of adults? Why aren’t they exercising? Do they not know how? Do they not know how to overcome barriers of time, responsibilities, injuries, etc? Aren’t all these things we can begin to teach our students in PE?

So what can we do as PE Teachers to increase adult participation in exercise or sport?

  1. Make our curriculums involve more than just sport, especially in higher ed (high school). Students get the basics of sports in elementary and middle school, so if they are interested in a sport they are most likely participating in that sport and reaping those benefits. We can add more fitness and lifetime sports to engage students who do not want to play a sport, and it educates them for the future.
  2. Teach them the WHY. Why is exercise and being physically active important? How do their bodies and benefit their brains when they are active? Give them the long list of reasons why it’s important and for each type of exercise and sport.
  3. Have real conversations about barriers to exercise and that putting health as a priority isn’t always easy. We need to have these conversations with them early so we can teach them how to overcome when life gets harder and busier as adults. We can give them scenarios and have them brainstorm how they could overcome that barrier to meet their exercise recommendations, we can share real life examples in ourselves and how we make it work.
  4. The biggest thing I think we need to do is introduce them to as many activities as we possible can in the hopes they find 1 thing they want to continue to do into adulthood. For many, that isn’t sports.

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2 thoughts on “Discussion: 3 in 4 Adults used to play sports, but now only 1/4 do. What can we do as PE teachers to change this narrative?

  1. The numbers do shed a light some interesting findings. I would also say that much of what I see is not a school issue,. Rather, it is an issue with specialization at an early age and parents, coaches, and others not making the game fun. I have seen too many times where it has be come a job for kids. I would also add that sports are being cost prohibitive for many families. With no other alternatives in the communities, or even intramural level in high school there is no outlet for some of these kids. Many changes need to be made. One I would love to see is that high school offer an intramural league for kids who want to do activities but don’t want to play on the school team. Maybe even have in house corn hole leagues or other such activities. Just a few of my thoughts.


    1. I agree with you on all of the issues with sports. We all want our kids to be the next big thing, and can push them too hard. My goal is to give my students avenues beyond sports that they can continue to do for the longevity of their life.


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