Does it heal or hurt? Experts again argue about the impact of big sport on health

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Does it heal or hurt? Experts again argue about the impact of big sport on health
Does it heal or hurt? Experts again argue about the impact of big sport on health
21 February, 15:24SportPhoto: Фото: Соцсети
The data of studies of this problem is very controversial, some information convince of the harmlessness of professional sports, the other of its undoubted harm.

The Olympic Games in Beijing, and especially the scandal involving the young Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, once again exacerbated a long-standing problem: how harmful professional sports, the sport of high achievements, are for the health of the athletes themselves. It is clear that many parents dream that their children become the same great athletes as, for example, Irina Rodnina, or Lionel Messi. However, how many of them will be disappointed when they see that instead of champions, children have become lifelong invalids ... It is clear that in many poor countries (and Russia is no exception) professional sports are a quick social elevator. But, alas, not for everyone, but only for a tiny minority. So is the game worth the candle? Experts have been arguing about this for the umpteenth time on social networks.

Professional sports are more useful than TV and computer

The well-known Russian doctor Pavel Brand cites seemingly irrefutable evidence in favor of professional sports in his publication:

“Professional sports are useless for the healthy, but harmful for the sick!

I have heard this expression since childhood. From the point of view of formal logic, this is true. The sport of high achievements is overcoming oneself on the brink of the body's capabilities with a high risk of injury, including psychological ones. The last Olympiad clearly demonstrated this. Poor children are deprived of their childhood, forced to exhaust themselves with endless workouts, diets and trips. Everything seems to be clear and understandable. What is there to discuss? I myself have been convinced of this for many years.

A couple of days ago, a familiar journalist asked me to write a note about the dangers of sports from a medical point of view. I was agreed - yet clear and obvious! But then I decided to look at research on the topic. It turned out that the harm of professional sports is another myth!

Yes, it is extremely difficult to assess the harm / benefit. These are very conditional concepts. To measure, you need to take some specific indicators. Based on generally accepted ideas about the global dangers of sports, professional athletes should live less and get sick more often with cardiovascular (athlete's heart) and oncological (they eat all sorts of filth, including hormones; constant stress) diseases. So, according to the results of the research, everything turned out to be exactly the opposite!

Professional athletes live longer and get sick less often than the average population.

Why is this happening?

It is not known for sure, but it can be assumed that athletes, on average, lead a more active lifestyle, are less prone to bad habits (our football players do not count), eat more properly, and tolerate stress more easily.

Yes, of course, a lot depends on the sport. Injuries, breakdowns, weight gain after the end of a career has not been canceled. Nevertheless, in any case, playing sports is more useful than lying in front of the TV or sitting in front of the computer eating chips. Even if it is a sport of high achievements.

As for the lost childhood, everything is not so simple here either. I did not find any research on this topic, but I am more than sure that professional musicians, for example, have it no less lost. And it's hard to say which is worse - spending all day in the gym / music class / art school or playing on the computer at night / sniffing glue behind garages / drinking beer at discos.

All of the above does not negate the over-commercialization and politicization of professional sports, which in themselves are disgusting, regardless of the harm / benefit to health!

Great Athletes Are Just Naturally Healthy People

However, biologist and renowned science journalist Irina Yakutenko questioned Brand's findings:

“In connection with the Olympiad passions, people are actively discussing the topic “Professional sports kills health”. And several doctors immediately wrote that this was not the case, citing as evidence several studies and even reviews in which elite athletes have better health indicators in general, and mortality from various causes is lower than the general population. And this is a very typical example of two common biases that cause people to draw the wrong conclusions, seemingly based on data.

The first is distortion, the original skew of the sample . People who have reached the heights of professional sports, and even more so elite athletes, are, to put it mildly, not the average representatives of the population. These are very healthy people, often with initially much more successful biochemical characteristics that determine, for example, metabolism, growth and muscle function, etc. Only such people can withstand the monstrous stresses of big sport for years (including psychological ones: the reaction to stress and the body's ability to compensate for it and not allow it to develop too much is a predictor of long-term health, since this is literally a deadly factor) and not only stay alive and well, but also to set records. Naturally, such people live longer than average and maintain good health records for longer. In other words, here we have a typical survivor's error, when an exceptional result is taken for a typical one.

The second distortion is related to the first. All works that describe the increased health of athletes are so-called observational studies, that is, scientists did nothing with the participants in the studies, they only observed. If we had two samples of people with typical initial characteristics of athletes (by the way, this is also a very non-trivial question of how to recruit them: after all, most of those who come to sports are eliminated, so a separate long-term study with a huge sample is needed to select such typical characteristics), and half we would give to big sport, and half would be left as a control - then yes, we could say for sure whether big sport harms health or not. Simply by comparing the health outcomes of elite athletes and ordinary people, we cannot conclude anything about the impact of sports: the input characteristics vary too much, too many factors can affect the final result, the effect may be too different for those who can reach the elite categories, and for ordinary people.

But this example perfectly illustrates how often well-known and seemingly self-evident things are not at all so. Because both conclusions - both that big sport is terribly harmful, and that it only improves health - are made on incomplete data (and among supporters of the point of view about the dangers of sports, too: news about injuries to athletes is replicated, and news about the fact that the athlete had a successful career and never broke anything - no) and initially skewed samples. As they say in programming, shit in - shit out, if we have low-quality data at the input, then there can be no relevant conclusions at the output. So be healthy and don’t get fooled by too simple explanations of anything: most often such explanations poorly reflect reality..."

They are exactly the same as ordinary people!

It is curious that another doctor, Dmitry Zateyshchikov, also refuted the optimistic conclusions of his colleague:

“At one time I had a grant from the Ministry of Sports - we examined former elite athletes at the level of champions of the country, Europe and the world, and former Olympic champions. Ordinary People, Ordinary Diseases, Ordinary Lifespans. The exception is weightlifting - obesity, hypertension, heart attacks and strokes at an earlier age. Half have a broken fate - dizzying success in their youth and poverty and oblivion then. Surnames, of course, I will not name, but only a few managed to escape and live a normal life (now I can remember 2-3 of them) from those examined by us..."

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