If we want to boost our kids' mental and physical health and save tens of billions of dollars in medical costs by 25 percent, the way to do it is to increase the number of kids playing sports by 2030, a new study finds.

The 2030 goal is part of the government's Healthy People initiative which was started in 1979, and sets 10-year objectives for our nation's health and wellbeing.

Inactivity has played a big role in the increasing rate of obesity among children and adolescents. Right now, only a quarter of children between six and 17 years old get the recommended daily hour of exercise.

Simply increasing the number of children in sports by 25 percent over the next five and half years could save as much as $80 billion over their lifetimes.

Another part of the escalating problem is COVID. In March 2020, athletic programs in school and after-school were shut down to help contain the pandemic. Four years later, the number of children rejoining these programs is much lower than experts had hoped and expected. The health consequences have been staggering — and expensive.

But there is hope. The study estimated that simply increasing the number of children in sports by 25 percent over the next five and half years could save roughly $80 billion.

For example, the physical health improvements that would result from increasing youth sports participation could avert 352,000 cases of weight-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and cancers across the 6- to 17-year old cohort's lifetime, a savings of over $22 billion in direct medical costs and over $25 billion in productivity losses due to improvements in physical health.

Increasing kids' and teens' physical activity had mental health benefits, too. Studies have shown that playing sports can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. The current study projected that the overall reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms from achieving the Healthy People 2030 sports participation target would save $3.61 billion in direct medical costs and $28.38 billion in productivity losses across the youth cohort's lifespan.

Inactivity has played a big role in the increasing rate of obesity among children and adolescents. COVID lockdowns didn't help, either.

The researchers based their estimates on computer simulations of the long-term benefits of increased participation in physical activities among kids 6 years to 17 years. The computer model was developed by a team from PHICOR (Public Health Informatics, Computational and Operations Research). For two decades, PHICOR has been designing systems and tools to help decision-makers better understand and address complex systems in health.

The PHICOR team worked with the City University of New York (CUNY), as well as the Aspen Institute's Project Play initiative and collaborators from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Adelphi University, Stellenbosch University, University of Texas at Austin, Utah State University and Michigan State University.

“Our study shows how achieving this major public health goal outline by Healthy People 2030 can not only help to prevent disease and save lives, it can also save our economy billions of dollars,” senior author Bruce Y. Lee, executive director of PHICOR and a professor at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health, said in a press release. “And those savings will keep recurring if the United States can maintain that level of youth sports participation.”

Just moving the needle on sports participation by a relatively small amount can save billions of dollars. For example, increasing youth sports participation back to pre-COVID levels could save as much as $29 billion.

“We're dangerously close to having a nation in which most children no longer play organized sports,” said co-author Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute's Sports & Society program. “We need the help of public health, education, government philanthropy and other sectors that touch the lives of kids — those that will derive many of the benefits and cost savings of getting and keeping more kids in the game.”

The CDC recommends children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 years get 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity each day. CDC suggests:

  • Most of your daily 60 minutes should include anything that makes your heart beat faster — aerobic activities like walking, running, at least 3 days a week should include vigorous-intensity activities.
  • Muscle-strengthening activities like climbing or doing push-ups should be done at least 3 days per week.
  • Bone-strengthening, weight-bearing activities such as walking, jumping or running should be done at least 3 days per week.

The study is published in American Journal of Preventative Medicine.