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Fit in 50 years: participation in high school sports best predicts one’s physical activity after Age 70

Simone Dohle1* and Brian Wansink2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Health Science and Technology, Consumer Behavior, ETH Zurich, Universitätsstrasse 22, CHN H75.3, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland

2 John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, 15 Warren Hall, Ithaca NY, USA

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:1100  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-1100

Published: 1 December 2013



The health benefits of physical activity are widely established, including decreased risk for disease and improved mental well-being. Yet many children, adolescents, and adults do not meet the minimum recommendations specified in current public health guidelines and physical activity is known to decrease during the life course. The aim of this study was to identify background or personality characteristics that predict whether a healthy 25 year-old would become a physically active 75 year-old. This could have powerful implications for targeting physical activity and health interventions.


A unique data set was collected of 712 healthy United States males who passed a rigorous physical exam in the 1940s and who were surveyed 50 years later (in 2000). Their physical activity level after 50 years was correlated and regressed across a wide number of demographic, behavioral, and personality variables from when they were 50 years younger. Data was analyzed in 2012.


In contrast to prior beliefs, self-rated personality profile as a young man had little predictive influence on later-life physical activity. Instead, the single strongest predictor of later-life physical activity was whether he played a varsity sport in high school, and this was also related to fewer self-reported visits to the doctor.


Encouraging systematic or frequent physical activity at a young age - whether through school sports or club opportunities - might be the best investment in long-term activeness. This is relevant at a time when funding for many sports programs is being eliminated and play time is being replaced with screen time.

Exercise; Sports; Athletes; Retirement; Veterans; High school athletics; Football; Basketball; Baseball; Track; Elderly; Physical activity