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Moving On: Staying Physically Active After College Sports

By: Dr. Erin Reifsteck, Institute to Promote Athlete Health and Wellness at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

The NCAA promotes a holistic approach to developing student-athletes during their college careers and beyond. Although there is increased public dialogue around the long-term health of college student-athletes, many athletic departments have yet to develop specific programs to address this issue. The current season of NBC’s popular show, “The Biggest Loser,” profiles former athletes who struggle to maintain their health and fitness after retiring from competitive sport.  As a former NCAA student-athlete, I have a vested interest in how the transition to life after college sports impacts lifelong physical activity and other health behaviors.  During the transition, many graduating student-athletes turn their attention to finding a job, pursuing graduate school, or starting a family, while simultaneously dealing with the emotional reality of no longer being a collegiate student-athlete.  In my research, as well as through conversations with many former college student-athletes, I have found that maintaining a physically active lifestyle through this challenging transition is not easy, particularly when sport and exercise are no longer a central and structured part of daily life. In this article I will highlight physical inactivity-related concerns for student-athletes and discuss relevant research and strategies to help student-athletes prepare to maintain a healthy lifestyle..

Why is Physical Activity after College Important?

The physical and mental health benefits of regular physical activity (e.g., decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression; increased longevity, self-esteem, and quality life) are well-known and well-documented (See the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines).  Though student-athletes spend years building their fitness and health, becoming sedentary after college can quickly reverse the benefits gained from years of training.  During their collegiate careers, student-athletes typically spend several hours per day in physical training or competition.  Athletic activities are a structured part of a student-athlete’s college experience, with schedules to accommodate practices and competitions.  The benefits of physical activity participation depend upon student-athletes maintaining an active lifestyle throughout their lives.  Maintaining physical activity is a challenge for many student-athletes as priorities are likely to change upon completing their collegiate career.  Recent data from the University of Southern California’s “Trojan Lifetime Champions” project shows that former student-athletes are no more active or healthier than non-athlete alumni.  Data from the NCAASCORE (Study of College Outcomes and Recent Experiences) study shows that close to three-quarters of the former student-athletes surveyed report experiencing difficulty with retiring from competitive sport, and well over a third say that they only participate in vigorous exercise sometimes, seldom or never.  My own research suggests that, as expected, most student-athletes become less active after college. More importantly, almost one in five are not active enough to gain substantial health benefits.  

Motivating Student-Athletes to Stay Active

Identity and motivation are key factors influencing the physical activity behaviors of former college student-athletes.  Both identity and motivation are impacted by the transition out of college sport.  Many student-athletes have a strong athletic identity, and that identity may be threatened with the end of their collegiate sport career.  At the same time, student-athletes are losing external motivators to be active, including scholarships, teammates, a structured program, and access to coaches and state of the art facilities.  However, when physical activity is an integral part of a person’s sense of identity, and when people are motivated by more self-determined reasons, they are more likely to participate in and maintain their physical activity.  

Based on this identity and motivation framework, we are partnering with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro department of athletics to develop a physical activity transition program for senior student-athletes.  The goals of the program are to:

  1. Help student-athletes transition from a sport-specific identity (e.g., I am a basketball player) to a broader, active-based identity (e.g., I am a physically active person); and
  2. Strengthen self-determined motivation for physical activity by enhancing competence in a wider range of activities, promoting choice of activities, and fostering a connection with peers through physical activity participation.  

Through small group discussion activities, our program sessions provide information about physical activity benefits and guidelines, explore how identity may be impacted by the transition, encourage student-athletes to plan for their lifestyle transition, and provide strategies for setting effective goals and maintaining physical activity. Additionally, student-athletes are exposed to lifetime physical activities such as yoga, tai chi, light resistance training, and other recreational activities.  

Recommendations for Collegiate Athletic Programs

In addition to offering workshops for student-athletes that focus on healthy lifestyle behaviors at the end of their college careers, coaches and athletics department staff can incorporate other helpful strategies for student-athletes throughout their collegiate experience.   Coaches can work together with strength and conditioning coaches to provide cross-training opportunities in the off-season that enable student-athletes to expand their interest and skills. Coaches and athletics department staff can also support student-athletes in developing greater autonomy- or ownership- in their training.  Providing multiple options for training that achieve the desired outcome but allow student-athletes some agency in making decisions is an important transferrable skill for life after college.  When they complete their college sport careers, student-athletes will not have coaches telling them what to do or how to do it, so it is important for student-athletes to learn how to plan and choose activities for themselves.  Adding this element of choice will foster more enjoyment and motivation for the activity by including student-athletes in the decision-making process.

Ultimately, maintaining physical activity across the lifespan is essential for everyone, and especially important for student-athletes transitioning out of college sports.  Student-athletes may struggle with this transition and find it difficult to maintain their activity levels once they are no longer competing.  Colleges and universities can fulfill their commitment to the holistic development of their student-athletes by implementing educational programming and incorporating specific strategies to promote lifelong physical activity among their student-athletes.

About Erin Refsteck, Ph.D.

Dr. Erin Reifsteck is a post-doctoral research fellow with the Institute to Promote Athlete Health and Wellness at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  Her doctoral degree is in Kinesiology, with a specialization in Sport and Exercise Psychology.  She played field hockey at Saint Francis University, where she was a two-time CoSIDA Division I Academic All-American.  Dr. Reifsteck's research focuses on promoting lifelong physical activity and health among athletes.