Shawn C. Sorenson is a health and exercise scientist at the University of Southern California and the founder of S.C. Sorenson Consulting.
Question: Twenty years from now, who’s more likely to be a regular, healthy exerciser? A) The all-American athlete, with the ripped physique, seemingly infinite endurance, superhuman strength and supremely tuned agility? Or B) The decidedly less-impressive specimen sitting in the bleachers?
Intuition suggests A. Since athletes know how to exercise, love exercise and have been doing it all their lives, maintaining healthy exercise habits should be easy, right? Except, well, it’s not.
In a series of studies, the first of which was published in the journal Sports Health, my colleagues and I examined the health and exercise habits of nearly 500 students and alumni from the University of Southern California. They included current and former student-athletes — some of whom competed at the Olympics or went on to be pros — as well as nonathletes who never played college sports.
Predictably, current student athletes reported being more active, averaging 15 hours of weekly exercise, 11 more than students who didn’t play sports. Three out of four said exercise was “very important” in their lives (compared with just one in six nonathletes). And 86 percent met healthy exercise guidelines: 150 minutes of cardio and two sessions of strength training per week. Student athletes were 30 times as likely as nonathlete students to do so.
But among alumni, who on average competed in the 1980s and 1990s, being a former college athlete had nothing to do with being a healthy exerciser. Both athlete and nonathlete alums reported an average of five hours a week of exercise — most of that cardio. Just 40 percent met the healthy exercise guidelines. That’s admittedly twice the national average, suggesting that USC alumni as a whole are relatively active. The surprise, though, was that the former jocks were just as likely to become couch potatoes.
It wasn’t always this way. At least two earlier studies — one tracking Finnish athletes who’d competed for some period between 1920 and 1965, and the other looking at NFL players who’d been part of the league during the 1958 season — found former athletes more likely to exercise throughout their lives and to enjoy health benefits as a result.
So what’s changed? In recent decades, athletic training has become more specialized, structured and supervised. Gone are the days when Sir Roger Bannister (the first to run a sub-four-minute mile) snuck in training as a medical school hobby. When it was common for fall’s football stars to dabble in baseball in the spring — or take the offseason off. For modern athletes, competitive sports are an integral part of life, a major year-round commitment, an opportunity for financial or professional rewards, and an important source of social and psychological identity.