Does participation in sports reduce teen pregnancy rates?

Carolyn Loos
12 June 2014

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/ArtisticCaptures

Fast fact: The biggest risk factors for teen pregnancy include low family income and being born to a teen aged mother with limited education.Health professionals and teachers want to promote parental responsibility and reduce risky sexual behaviour among teens. This often involves parenting courses where students care for a squawking, squirming robotic baby. But would simply encouraging teen girls to participate in sports be more effective in reducing pregnancy rates?

In 1995, the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) administered a “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” in high schools across the United States. The questionnaire focused on sports and risky sexual behaviour. Specifically, the WSF wanted to know if there was a connection between girls’ participation in sports and sexual behaviour.

Since factors other than playing sports also influence the likelihood of teenage pregnancy, the authors of the study used statistical techniques that tried to minimize the effects that other variables, such as family income, ancestry, and maternal education might have on the results. The study received 9,009 responses.

The WSF ultimately made a number of findings regarding young female athletes:

They were 50% less likely to experience a teen pregnancy than non-athletes. They tended to delay the first time they had sexual intercourse. They had less sex and fewer sex partners over the course of a year, thereby reducing the risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted infection. They used birth control, including condoms, more often than their non-athletic counterparts.

Fast fact: The teen pregnancy rate in the US declined from 11.7% in 1991 to 6.8% in 2008. In Canada, the national rate has held steady at 2.8%.The results for male athletes were more mixed. On the one hand, guys involved in sports had sexual intercourse earlier than non-athletes. On the other hand, they shared many of the other positive results associated with athletic girls.

Why do girls who participate in sports have a lower rate of teen pregnancy? There are many possible explanations. But it is important to remember that the correlation between participation in sports and lower teen pregnancy rates does not necessarily mean that participation in sports causes lower teen pregnancy rates.

Generally, the female athletes in the study had more confidence, higher self-esteem, and a healthier body image. Furthermore, they demonstrated increased physical discipline. This overall sense of empowerment and self-control may help teen athletes resist pressure to have sex in exchange for approval or popularity. The WSF also suggests that sports teams act as support groups where girls can openly discuss boys, health, and sexuality.

Other research has shown that physical activity reduces stress and the risk of depression due to the release of mood-regulating neurotransmitters, such as endorphins and serotonin. Neurotransmitters activate different parts of the brain to control various functions such as mood, hunger, sleep, memory, learning, temperature regulation, and behaviour. Endorphin release causes feelings of euphoria while reducing appetite and the sensation of pain. Serotonin affects digestion, blood clotting, breathing, and heart rate. It also makes you feel more cheerful.

Fast fact: Medical risks for teenage mothers and their babies include pregnancy-induced hypertension (high blood pressure), anemia, eclampsia (seizures and coma), depressive disorder, low birth weight, and premature birth.So it’s possible that “happy” human biochemistry helps stop physically active teens from engaging in risky sexual behaviours. However, more research is needed before any direct connection can be established.

If sports can reduce risky sexual behaviour, what about other extra-curricular activities, like band or photography club? Participating in these activities can help teens increase their self-confidence and learn important skills, such as time management, a skill that can help relieve stress. Moreover, a New Jersey social service group claims that teens who don’t participate in extra-curricular activities are much more likely to use drugs and become teen parents than those who do. But once again, further research is needed before a direct link can be established.

In particular, it should be noted that the WSF based their study on observational data, which showed a correlation between girls participating in sports and lower teen pregnancy rates. Unfortunately, observational data alone cannot determine causation. It’s like saying, “It’s sunny out, so it must be warm.” But there are many winter days when it is very sunny, and also very cold.

To move beyond correlation and establish causation, researchers would have to experiment by manipulating certain variables while holding others constant. That’s something that’s fairly easy to do with bacteria in a lab, but can’t be done when researching teenage girls and sexual behaviour, for obvious ethical reasons.

Looking for more information?

The resources section of the Planned Parenthood Toronto website offers a wide range of information on sexual health issues: www.ppt.on.ca

The website of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada includes a variety of free resources on sex education: www.sieccan.org

So it’s very possible that certain teen girls may be both more likely to play sports and less likely to become pregnant. There could simply be another reason or cause. As I mentioned earlier, the researchers did control for several factors. However, they were unable to control for other factors like personal ambition, a drive to succeed, or existing body image issues, just to name a few. It's impossible to control for everything just using observational data and statistics.

Based on your experience, do the research results discussed in this article ring true? How would you go about gathering additional data on the relationship between teen pregnancy and extracurricular activities?

References

The Disadvantages of Not Being Involved in Extracurricular Activities in High School (K. Nola Mokeyane, Demand Media) Dopamine Functions (Ananya Mandal, News Medical) Effects of Serotonin on the Body (Bridget Coila, Livestrong.com) Endorphins: Natural Pain and Stress Fighters (Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MedicineNet.com) Exercise releases stress fighting hormones (Holly Leber, Chattanooga Times Free Press) Initial Report on Public Health: Teen Pregnancy (Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care) Not Just another Single Issue: Teen Pregnancy and Athletic Involvement (National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Education. com) Risk and Protective Factors for Adolescent Substance Use (and other Problem Behaviour) (Alaska Division of Behavioral Health) Sport and Teen Pregnancy (Women’s Sport Foundation) Teen Pregnancy Prevention: Risk and Protective Factors (Find Youth Info) Teen Pregnancy: Medical Risks and Realities (WebMD.com) Why teen pregnancy is on the rise again in Canada (Zosia Bielski, Globe and Mail)

Carolyn Loos

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