Teens who play sports are less likely to be smokers or take drugs but they may drink more.
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.
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% 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% of teens who didn't exercise reported smoking cigarettes at some point in the past month, and 23% had smoked marijuana. That compared to 25% to 29% of frequent exercisers and athletes who had smoked cigarettes and 15 to 17% who smoked marijuana.
About 45% of non-exercisers said they had drunk alcohol in the previous month, which rose to 57% in those who regularly played a team sport.Why drinking?
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 sports, 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.Why do you think teens would drink alcohol more than take drugs?