Thousands of kids play soccer for fun, but years-long involvement with the game can have more health benefits than routine physical activity.
A study published this month in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that, among boys ages 10 to 13, participating in soccer for three hours a week over three years resulted in a 7% increase in anaerobic capacity, 6% more total lean body mass and 33% more total bone mineral density.
This is compared with a control group that did 45 minutes of various activities, such as running, twice a week in physical education classes, and which actually increased the participants' body fat by the end of the study.
"Pre-pubescence is a critical time to build up bone mass, and you need to do physical activity to accomplish that," says lead researcher Dr. Jose A.L. Calbet, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain. He studied 17 male soccer players from 1996 to 1999.
Calbet first thought that kicking a soccer ball might play a role in building bone density. But he now believes that a combination of sprinting, jumping and changing direction quickly elicited the change. Similar movements can be found in sports such as football and rugby.
The research was done amid a growing concern among health officials in Europe over an increase in childhood obesity and the role of activity in combating it. "I think it's important," says Calbet, "that parents try to look for activities that their kids like."