What Is The Best Sport For You? Try This Healthy Sport Index

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Pictured here are Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova at the 2016 Australian Open. How does tennis measure in the Healthy Sport Index? (Photo: WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)Getty

There is no shortage of guidebooks and apps that provide not-so-useful information to help you make not-so-important decisions. An example is an app called “Is It Dark Outside” that tells you, you guessed it, whether or not it is dark outside. But at the same time there still is a shortage of guidance for some of the biggest decisions that you may make in your life.

One example has been the decision of what sports to play as a kid. If you think that this is a not big decision, I beg to differ. Whether you choose to play sports, and the sports that you play can dramatically affect the course of the rest of your life, including even potentially how long you live. Yet, there has long been a shortage of proper guidance for making this decision, that is, until now.

On October 11, 2018, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative unveiled the Healthy Sport Index, a web-based tool that can help you choose the most appropriate sports for you or your children based on the health benefits and athletic skill development that you may be seeking. Jon Solomon, Editorial Director for the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program,  described the Index as “the first one-stop resource that assesses the relative benefits and risks of playing in any given sport. We compiled the best available data and expert analysis to evaluate the 10 most popular high school boys and girls sports in three areas of health: physical activity, safety and psychosocial benefits.”

The Project Play Initiative developed the Index and web site in partnership with the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) and with the guidance of a sports health advisory group that included medical doctors, researchers and other specialists. “The knowledge that has propelled HSS to world leadership in musculoskeletal health gives us the opportunity and responsibility to lead also in supporting personal fulfillment and injury prevention,” related Louis A. Shapiro, President and Chief Executive at HSS.  “The Healthy Sport Index is an example of how we are harnessing that knowledge to enable families everywhere to make the best-informed decisions based on their personal goals.”

Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors drives against LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers. What does the Healthy Sports Index say about basketball?  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)Getty

The Index includes the most common sports played in the U.S. for boys (baseball, basketball, cross country, football, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field, and wrestling) and for girls (basketball, cheerleading, cross country, lacrosse, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, track and field, and volleyball). So if you are debating whether to play pogo stick polo, you may be out of luck. But most other popular sports are available in the Index. 

A web page describes in detail the methodology involved in calculating the Healthy Sports Index for category for each sport. Here is the longer than the Twitter but shorter than the Reader’s Digest version.

The Physical Activity category helps you determine how much you may move your body during practice. Why are we talking about practice instead of just games? Despite what Hall of Fame basketball player Allen Iverson may have said, practice is where you spend most of your time in a sport. For this category, a team from the Aspen Institute and North Carolina State observed practices at a representative sample of 12 high schools in North Carolina. This included nearly 700 hours of 605 varsity sports practices, covering 2,420 total athletes. The team measured how often athletes participated in vigorous exercise, walking (moderate activity), and lying down/sitting/standing (sedentary activity).

The Safety category can show you how common injuries may be. This included tabulating and combining in a weighted average for each sport the overall injury rate, the time loss due to injury, the concussion rate, the percentage of injuries requiring surgery, and the rate of non-fatal catastrophic injuries/illnesses. As you can imagine, these rates can vary significantly by sport. For example, swimming probably doesn’t have as high concussion risk, unless you are closing your eyes near the wall. The numbers came from the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study (High School RIO).

The Psychosocial category helps you profile how playing the sport may change your behavior via gaining various emotional, social and academic skills.This measure was a weighted average of measures from 4 categories: Personal Social Skills, Cognitive Skills, Goal Setting, Initiative, Health, Negative Experiences, the Psychological Health Report Card, Substance Abuse, and Academic Achievement. Data for these measures came from national surveys of high school athletes conducted by the Aspen Insitute and analyzed by a team from the University of Texas along with data from the Teen Sport in America: Why Participation Matters report from the Women’s Sports Foundation.

USA Forward Alex Morgan (13) attempts to block the pass of Japan Defender Risa Shimzu during the 2018 Tournament of Nations match between the United States and Japan. What would make soccer or football the right sport for you? (Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)Getty

Why is choosing what sports to play such an important decision, especially if you are a kid? A sport is like a pair of form fitting rubber pants. If it is a bad fit, it could be a painful experience, and you will be quick to get your butt out of there. However, if it is a good fit, you are more likely to stick with the sport. If you stick with sports, you are more likely to stay physically active, which is healthier than sitting on the couch texting your friends “YOLO.” If the sport is a good fit, then you are more likely to learn from the sport and acquire skills that can help you in your career and personal life. The right sports for you can provide contacts, connections, and friends that can impact you for the rest of your life. If the sport keeps you healthy and relatively injury free, you are more likely to keep playing the sport well into your old age, which some kids may consider to be older than 20 years bu tin actuality extends well beyond that. All of this could lead to happier, more fulfilling, healthier, and longer lives. Still think the decision of what sports to play doesn’t matter?

Of course, the goal of this Index is not to tell you that some sports stink and that some sports are better than others. Sports are not Katy Perry songs, where some are clearly better than others. A sport that is good for someone else may not be good for you and vice versa. As Tom Farrey, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, explained:

Playing any sport is better than playing no sport. Most parents and youth understand this. The Healthy Sport Index is a tool to help them to make the best decisions for them, so youth can get and stay involved in sports – hopefully for life. We owe them this resource, and we hope that schools, sport organizations, health and medical organizations, and other stakeholders use its insights to improve the delivery of sport experiences for youth.

The main page of the Healthy Sports Index website has a tool that you can use to determine how important each of the 3 categories are to you. Dragging the sliders for each of the 3 categories from low emphasis to high emphasis will change the resulting ranking of the different sports. This way you customize what you want and see which sports may fit your needs.

This tool could help you, your parents, or your kids make much more informed decisions when choosing what sports to play. Note that I said sports and not sport, because, as I wrote previously for Forbes, playing multiple sports is healthier than just playing one. Focusing on just one sport, especially when you are a kid, can be like eating nothing but beans all the time. By helping make better decisions, the Healthy Sports Index may help many more people experience the fantastic benefits of playing sports, which is important with sports participation among kids so low and the childhood obesity epidemic continuing. It is certainly much more helpful than an app that tells you whether it is dark outside. If it is after 9 pm, chances are that it is dark, by the way.

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