NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Teens who exercise and play team sports are less likely to be smokers or use marijuana and other drugs than their peers, but they do drink more alcohol, a study said.
While the findings, published in "Addiction," don't prove cause and effect, they could have important implications for preventing drug and alcohol abuse in young adults, the study's authors said.
"If we can encourage an enjoyment in general exercise, we may be able to see a lowering of participation in drug use," said Yvonne Terry-McElrath, at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and one of the authors.
"It's at least a starting point."
She warned, though, that the links found in the study "were not staggeringly huge" and added that encouraging exercise was certainly "not a cure for anything."
Terry-McElrath and her colleagues used data from a study sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that followed high school seniors through young adulthood with regular surveys that asked about recent use of alcohol, cigarettes and drugs, as well as participation in athletics and exercise.
The report included data on close to 12,000 students, about half of whom filled out follow-up surveys until they were 25 or 26 years old.
At the first survey, students had drunk alcohol between one and five times, on average, in the previous month, and smoked marijuana between zero and two times. The average senior smoked cigarettes not at all or less than one per day. About 9 percent of students had used other illicit drugs in the previous month.
Students who participated in team sports or general exercise were less likely to use cigarettes, marijuana and other illicit drugs as final year students. And those who increased their physical activity over the next few years also reported smoking and using drugs less often as time went on.
About 38 percent of teens who didn't exercise reported smoking cigarettes at some point in the past month, and 23 percent had smoked marijuana. That compared to 25 percent to 29 percent of frequent exercisers and athletes who had smoked cigarettes and 15 to 17 percent who smoked marijuana.
Being involved in team sports meant teens were more likely to drink frequently -- but that didn't extend to people who exercised without being part of a team.
About 45 percent of non-exercisers said they had drunk alcohol in the previous month, which rose to 57 percent in those who regularly played a team sport.
The authors also noted that the high school final year students who reported drinking more at the first survey were also heavier drinkers throughout young adulthood.
It's not the first time a study has linked participation in team sports to drinking, although it's not necessarily the case that playing sports causes a teen to drink more. Terry-McElrath said there are still many theories as to why these athletes tend to drink more than others.
Drinking may be an important social activity on some teams, and there may be more peer pressure to drink in post-game environments. In addition, Terry-McElrath noted that sports are closely tied to the alcohol industry -- just consider all the beer advertisements on during the Super Bowl, she added.
She, and others, said that athletes might avoid other drugs since they could have a negative impact on competition, whether by impairing performance or turning up on a drug test.
Nadra Lisha, a graduate student at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, said that people who exercise a lot and those who use alcohol might be sensation-seekers who get a thrill from both activities.
"Drinking might not be as detrimental to their life, whereas smoking something -- it would be much harder to exercise the next day," Lisha, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters Health.
Reporting by Genevra Pittman at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies