Sports Can Transform Lives
But playing different sports offers different benefits and risks. We created the Healthy Sport Index so you – athletes, parents, educators and others – can make the most informed decisions about sport activity that meets the needs of youth.
The Healthy Sport Index combines the best available data and expert analysis to identify the relative benefits and risks of participating in the 10 most popular high school boys and girls sports. The tool is a product of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, developed in partnership with the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) and with the guidance of an advisory group of medical doctors, researchers and other specialists whose experience spans a range of disciplines, sports, and athlete populations.
Three areas of health were analyzed:
- Physical Activity: How much are athletes moving their bodies in that sport? A large body of research underscores the benefits of exercise, from brain development to reduced risk of chronic illness.
- Safety: How prevalent are injuries in that sport? Injuries suffered in the course of playing a sport, and whether they impair body or brain function over the life span, limit the benefits of sports.
- Psychosocial: How has playing a sport changed the behaviors of its athletes? Have their emotional and social skills improved? Has it motivated them academically? Are they less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol?
The Aspen Institute, HSS and the advisory group recognize that playing sports in general is good for youth, as is enjoying more than one sport or physical activity. Different sports offer different benefits, and different youth have different health needs. Further, how each sport experience is served up differs from school to school, and team to team. No single experience is the same and some programs and coaches adhere to best practices more closely than others.
Thus, the Healthy Sport Index is not intended to conclude which sports youth should or shouldn’t play. Also, lower results of a sport do not imply that choosing that sport is detrimental as opposed to not choosing a sport at all, as all sports have some benefit. Rather, the aggregate data and results produced are designed to help athletes and families make informed decisions based on that child’s specific needs.
We know that parents believe in the power of sport to build healthy lives and want such a tool. The federal government’s Physical Activity Guidelines highlight youth sports as a key opportunity in building healthy communities, noting that it’s important to “understand the risks, yet be confident that physical activity can be safe for almost everyone.” Educators, civic leaders, health and medical organizations, sport governing bodies, and other stakeholders may also find the Healthy Sport Index useful in improving the delivery of sports experiences.
Throughout the website, the results assigned to each sport are based on an equal weighting for each category – one-third for Physical Activity, one-third for Safety, one-third for Psychosocial. The dial on the front page of the website allows customization of those results, based on your priorities; assign the emphasis you place on each of the three categories, and watch the list of sports below re-order itself.
Then, learn more about the characteristics of each sport we evaluated. You’ll find the overall rank (based on our one-third equal distribution of category results), as well as rich health-related data on each sport. Each sport-specific page also includes recommendations on companion sports to play made by national governing bodies of those sports as well as two of the greatest athletes of the past century, NBA legend Kobe Bryant and Olympic champion heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. These recommendations can be used as well to evaluate options for youth who want or need to find alternate sports, due to interest or roster-size limitations. We also suggest a few best practices for that sport, with links to additional resources.
Side-by-side comparisons of all sports can be found on our Sports Results page. To learn more about how we developed the results, read the Methodology page; for why we built the tool this way, read the Frequently Asked Questions page. Also check out our Key Findings page, identifying 10 insights that emerged within and across sports in the course of our work, advancing knowledge on the topic of sports and health.
About the Aspen Institute
The Aspen Institute is a nonpartisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas. Based in Washington D.C., the Institute also has campuses in Aspen, Colo., and on the Wye River in eastern Maryland, and maintains offices in New York City and several other cities.
About the Aspen Institute Project Play
Launched in 2013, Project Play develops, applies and shares knowledge that helps stakeholders build healthy communities through sports. Its annual Project Play Summit is the nation’s premier gathering of leaders at the intersection of youth, sports and health. Project Play is the signature initiative of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, the mission of which is to convene leaders, facilitate dialogue and inspire solutions that help sports serve the public interest. The program provides a venue for thought leadership where knowledge can be deepened and breakthrough strategies explored on a range of issues.
About Hospital for Special Surgery
HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics (for the ninth consecutive year) and No. 3 in rheumatology by U.S. News & World Report (2018-2019). Founded in 1863, the Hospital has one of the lowest infection rates in the country and was the first in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center four consecutive times. The global standard total knee replacement was developed at HSS in 1969. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State. In 2017 HSS provided care to 135,000 patients and performed more than 32,000 surgical procedures.
“Project Play is the aggregator, the unifier, the commons for all honorable programs that serve youth through sports. The world’s first tool to offer apples-to-apples data and insights across the most commonly played sports, the Healthy Sport Index will help parents, educators, medical professionals, policymakers and other stakeholders assess and improve the quality of sport activities.”
CEO/Executive Vice President
American College of Sports Medicine
“In trying to navigate today’s youth sports scene, any guidance helps. That’s why a new tool released by the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, called the Healthy Sport Index, couldn’t be more timely. The handy website allows families to weigh three factors in deciding what sport makes the most sense: safety, physical activity, and the sport’s psychosocial benefits.”
TIME.com, Oct. 12, 2018
“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. … (The Healthy Sport Index) could help you, your parents, or your kids make much more informed decisions when choosing what sports to play.”
Forbes, Nov. 10, 2018
“As we are starting to see more and more studies showing the risks of sport specialization, the Healthy Sport Index provides an evidence-based platform for parents, coaches, and medical professionals to guide young athletes into complimentary athletic endeavors offering less risk of injury and maximizing the well-known psychosocial benefits of sports participation.”
Dr. Michael (Mick) Koester
Chair of Sports Medicine Advisory Committee
National Federation of State High School Associations
“Sports are for a lifetime, not just in school, so the fact that you can adjust the Healthy Sport Index for the core three areas is also of great value. Being a multisport athlete has just gotten easier thanks to the Aspen Institute.”
Director, Sport Development
“The Healthy Sport Index is a good starting point to provide resources for athletes and parents as to what sports they may decide to try based on three key elements: physical activity, safety, and psychosocial behaviors. This index is great for coaches and sport organizations as it provides clear focus on three key elements of why people play sports. If sport organizations can work to improve how we train and provide sport experience to our members, we can start to battle the wave of athletes that quit sport too early.”
Manager of Coaches Education
“I honestly think this is the most interesting and useful collection of data on youth athletics that I have ever seen. The safety data, activity data and psychosocial data on their own would have been very useful. To have all of them together and able to be considered at various levels of emphasis is fantastic. It’s super useful for parents, but more importantly than that, it’s just very interesting.”
Parent of High School Athlete
“The Healthy Sport Index is a first-of-its-kind attempt to look holistically at what contributes to the overall health associated with high school participation. Like any effort this ambitious, there is more we hope to do in understanding how different sports may contribute to various aspects of health, but this has been as thorough and thoughtful an attempt to wrestle with understanding these issues as I have seen.”
Dr. Matt Bowers
Assistant Professor of Instruction in Sport Management
University of Texas at Austin
“The Healthy Sport Index should transform the way we think about youth and high school sports. Combining all of this information on health, safety, and physical activity allows athletes and families to explore options based upon their individual preferences and priorities. This is not about identifying one ‘best sport,’ but rather helping young people – and those who care for them – identify which sport is best for them.”
Dr. Michele LaBotz
Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness
American Academy of Pediatrics
“I have been involved with a number of organizations, consensus statements, and governing bodies. The Healthy Sport Index is the most comprehensive and rigorous compilation of high school sports data to date to help guide parents and young athletes on their choice of sports. This innovative index utilizes all the available scientific evidence in a number of different areas as well as an expert panel in a way that has not been done to date. I expect this to be one of the most important and practical resources for any parent, child, or coach involved in youth sports.”
Dr. Neeru Jayanthi
Emory Sports Medicine Research and Education
“I think the Healthy Sport Index has a great opportunity to be a conversation starter between parents and their children about what they want out of sport. Sport in and of itself is neither positive or negative. The Healthy Sport Index highlights that there’s always an opportunity for improvement, not just from sport to sport but season to season and coach to coach.”
Dr. Michael Kanters
Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management Professor
North Carolina State University
The Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program
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Explore the Ratings
Sports can transform lives. But playing different sports offers different benefits and risks. The best data were aggregated, and top experts consulted, to produce the first-ever tool that assesses the relative benefits and risks of participating in the most popular sports for adolescents.