Do you like sports? Do you like to exercise? Or both?
Sports and exercise activities overlap but are not one in the same.
Sports are: Activities involving physical exertion and skill that are governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively.
Exercise is: Activity that requires physical or mental exertion, especially when performed to develop or maintain fitness.
Some people like to play competitive or recreational team sports (basketball, volleyball, soccer, rowing, ultimate frisbee, etc.) as a means of getting exercise and maintaining physical fitness. Others like to perform physical activities solely for the purpose of getting fit (cardio machines, group fitness classes, cycling, walking, strength training, etc.). Neither is better, it entirely depends on what is most appropriate for the individual. It is also possible to align fitness goals with competition goals (i.e. running races, triathalons, etc.) if you so desire.
You can reap equal health benefits from sports or fitness activities, the important thing is that you are physically active. I may have said it a hundred times, but I really can't say it enough: physical activity is essential for getting and staying healthy!
Personally, I DETEST sports and LOVE fitness activities. I believe this is because of the negative experiences I had in sport as a child. I was never particularly concerned with winning, nor was I particularly gifted at any team sports - actually the only sport I didn't suck at was soccer. Unfortunately, many of the girls at my elementary school and high school were extremely competitive and I (and others like me) were socially ostracized for not being athletically-gifted. Even worse, the butt-munch of a gym teacher at my elementary school blatantly treated kids like me as second-class citizens and favoured the "sporty" kids. This did nothing good for my self-image or body esteem. By 10th grade, I no longer even bothered trying out for the school's sports teams.
Fortunately, in 9th grade when I decided I wanted to get more physically fit, my brother suggested I try going to the fitness classes that many of his female friends attended. A girlfriend and I got a pass for a local gym and after just one class I was hooked. There was no winning or losing. There was no performance evaluation. There was just fun music, fun movement and the energy of the participants feeding off one another.
By 12th grade I'd gotten certified as a fitness instructor and the rest is HISTORY.
Of course not everyone has a negative experience with sports. In fact, research shows that overall, children who participate in organized sports generally have higher self-esteem and better academic achievement than those who don't.
Just be aware that they are not appropriate for every child. If your child does not enjoy team sports, there are lots of other ways to get them hooked on exercise. There are individual sports that they can do non-competitively like swimming, running and cycling, and there are also a growing number of fitness options for kids. Toronto has a number of yoga for kids programs as well as gyms which offer strength training and group fitness for children and teens. At our local library yesterday, while Little A pulled all the Barney DVDs off the shelf, I spied a fitness DVD for kids, that a child can do right at home.
It's also important to know that some sports carry risks when children get to an elite level. We all know the physical dangers of things like rugby, football and hockey, but the aesthetic sports (gymnastics, ballet, skating, synchro swimming, etc.) can have psychological risks.
When I was a PhD student, my supervisor and I did a study that found that national level gymnastics coaches were emotionally abusive to their athletes and encouraged unhealthy behaviours to manage their weight. A frightening number of the gymnasts in the study admitted to having had or currently having disordered eating and body image distortion because of these experiences.
Children and adults need to be physically active - ideally 60 minutes of activity a day! Whether you and your children choose to do sports or fitness activities is not what's important. Just remember that whatever you do choose should inhance both physical and mental health. Get your kids moving, just be sure to find the right activity for them.