By Victor S. Sierpina 

When you hear the term sports, what do you think of? Perhaps what comes to mind are highly conditioned professional athletes who make more in a year than most of us make in a lifetime.

Maybe you think of your own experiences in school sports, physical education or personal competitions. You might even think of many hours spent relaxing viewing those skilled, very fit athletes on TV. There you are, sitting with your remote, some snacks and beverages in hand, admiring their skills while fattening your bottom. I can relate.

Some of the least healthy patients I see were very active in sports while in school. They excelled in football or other team sports. The discipline of being part of a team, the weight room, the roadwork, the drills and the regular practices kept them fit and competitive. As they left school and team sports, they continued to think of big as healthy.

Now some 250-300 pounds, they realize they did not adjust their diet and exercise to the new reality of spending most of their day sitting in front of a computer screen at a desk while not exercising daily.

Our schools are increasingly recognizing that teaching children good habits in personal fitness may be more important than the rah-rah of team sports that do not provide a habit of lifelong fitness. The crises in childhood obesity and diabetes are making this clear.

The majority of kids in school aren’t involved in team sports and need to develop fitness activities that are sustainable throughout their lives.

As a kid who was the smallest one in my class, I often suffered the humiliation of being the last one picked for the baseball, football or basketball (oh horror!) team. I couldn’t blame my classmates, as they wanted to win.

Despite the social and ego challenges these rebuffs posed, I somehow determined to work on getting stronger and bigger and fitter. I took on a lifelong habit, at the age of 11, of regular weight training, trying to look as buff as the Charles Atlas pictures that came with the barbells my folks got me for Christmas that year. Still working on that.

During the years, I developed other several individual fitness activities that kept me moving, even though no serious team would really want me. I did make All-Star as a Little League catcher, base stealer and hitter but that was my high-water mark.

These days, I play doubles tennis regularly on weekends at a neighbor’s court, with a gracious group of great players. During the week, a buddy and I find time to drill. The other players are friendly and encouraging, even though I am usually the least skilled player out there swinging a racket.

I am having fun, learning to play better every week, and best of all, keeping fit. Having the structure of the group, the predictable time to play and the social support helps keep active and involved.

Participate in fitness-related sports if you can. It is helpful to you, and those you play with. All for one, and one for all.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.