Girls warming up to play soccer on a soccer field.

Most boys and girls today play sports while less than one-quarter of adults do. A striking gender gap exists among adults with men more than twice as likely as women to play sports.

The Issue

Researchers sought to understand what roles sports play in the lives of men, women, and children over the course of the lifespan.

Key Findings

  • While 25 percent of adults play sports, more men (35%) than women (16%) do. Most girls (70%) and boys (76%) play sports. Sports participation is 15% among low-income adults (less than $25,000 a year) compared to 37% for higher-income adults (more than $75,000 a year).

  • The top five sports varies: For men it’s golf, basketball, soccer, baseball/softball, football, and running/track. For women: running, baseball/softball, tennis, volleyball, and swimming. For boys: basketball, soccer, football, baseball/softball, swimming, and running/track. For girls: basketball, baseball/softball, volleyball, soccer, and running/track.

  • Among adults, top reasons for playing sports are personal enjoyment (55%) and to improve health, get in shape, or loose weight (23%). Reasons cited for not playing are health-related (50%), lack of time (35%), and lack of interest (22%).

  • Most parents of middle or high school students encourage their child to play sports and many (26%) hope their child will become a professional athlete.  

  • Half of adults do moderate to vigorous exercise (walking, cardio/aerobic exercise, running/jogging, weight lifting, or biking) on a regular basis, mostly for health reasons (71%).


Understanding people’s attitudes towards sports participation may help shape health in the future.

About the Study

Researchers at the Harvard Opinion Research Program and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in partnership with RWJF and NPR developed this poll as part of an ongoing series of surveys. Interviews were conducted in early 2015 among a nationally representative sample of 2,596 respondents age 18 and older.

Coverage on National Public Radio

NPR is scheduling several stories this week and next, in conjunction with the release of the report, "Sports and Health."

Follow the coverage

The State of Play in America

A Forum event at Harvard School of Public Health on July 16 from 12:30- 1:30 p.m. ET—presented in collaboration with RWJF and NPR—will investigate how sports can help keep kids and adults healthy and how programs and policies might encourage more widespread participation, particularly among women and lower-income adults. The following experts will make up the panel:

  • Cobi Jones, Sports Broadcaster, Former Olympian and Former USA National Team Soccer Player 
  • Elizabeth Matzkin, Chief of Women's Sports Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital
  • Robert Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard Chan School and Harvard Kennedy School
  • Ed Foster-Simeon, President, U.S. Soccer Foundation
Learn more about the live webcast

RWJF Sports Award

Inspiring Healthier Communities Through Sport

The RWJF Sports Award recognizes innovative and collaborative approaches to making communities healthier places to live. 

Learn more about the award