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Student-Athletes Use Less Drugs, More Alcohol Than Peers, Study Finds

Student-athletes who play team sports are less likely to smoke cigarettes or marijuana or use other illegal drugs, but they're more likely to drink alcohol, according to a new study.

The study, which was published online in the journal Addiction in mid-May, drew data from a series of studies sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse—a total of nearly 12,000 students from the graduating classes of 1986 to 2001. The students were first surveyed as seniors in high school (and up to four more times through age 26) about their alcohol, cigarette, and drug consumption, as well as their participation in team sports and physical-activity level.

In terms of cigarette smoking, 25 percent to 29 percent of student-athletes who participated in team sports and students who frequently exercised reported smoking in the past month, while roughly 38 percent of nonexercising students had smoked a cigarette in the same time interval. The findings were similar for marijuana usage: 23 percent of nonexercising teens reported smoking marijuana in the past month, while only 15 percent to 17 percent of student-athletes had done so.

Another encouraging finding from the study: Those students (or former students) who increased their physical activity throughout early adulthood eventually started reporting less cigarette smoking and drug usage.

It wasn't all peaches and cream for the exercise-heavy students, though. While 45 percent of nonexercisers reported drinking alcohol at least once in the past month, 57 percent of team-sports-playing student-athletes said they had. Interestingly, this finding only applied to students participating in team sports, not students who exercised vigorously outside a team-sport context.

"Being a competitor and being at the top of your game does not have to mean high alcohol consumption," said one of the study's authors, Yvonne Terry-McElrath, to Reuters. Terry-McElrath recommended that high school coaches be educated about the issue of student-athlete alcohol consumption.

These findings about alcohol consumption among student-athletes likely won't strike most as surprising. Darren Mays, a researcher at Georgetown University Medical Center, told Reuters that student-athletes' competitive spirit could spill over into drinking, or that they could be using alcohol as a coping mechanism. Terry-McElrath also noted the prevalence of alcohol advertisements—specifically beer ads—in professional sports leagues. (To that effect, professional sports leagues aren't exactly helping the cause by allowing their players to bathe themselves in champagne after winning championships.)

But the findings about heavy exercisers reporting less cigarette smoking and drug usage are sources of encouragement, according to the study's authors.

"If we can encourage an enjoyment in general exercise, we may be able to see a lowering of participation in drug use," Terry McElrath said. "It's at least a starting point."

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