Engaging in sports benefit the mind and body. Participating in team sports also foster camaraderie and help kids learn accountability. The findings of a new study, published in the journal Pediatrics on July 25, show another health benefit of sports and exercise in kids.

Philip Veliz, from the University of Michigan, and colleagues have found that teen athletes are less likely to abuse prescription painkillers such as heroin and opioids compared to their non-athlete counterparts.

The findings suggest that sports could be a protective factor that can steer kids away from prescription drug addiction.

Previous research suggests that young athletes who participate in competitive sports are likely to get opioid prescriptions for injuries, which can potentially raise their risk of misusing these medications. There are concerns that kids who become addicted to painkillers will eventually resort to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to get.

Researchers wanted to know if young athletes are also at high risk of using heroin so they looked at the data of nearly 192,000 eighth and 10th graders for the period covering the years 1997 and 2014.

During this time, doctors prescribed more opioid painkiller for children and teens. Nonmedical use of opioids also sharply increased. Figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that deaths linked to opioid overdose nearly quadrupled in the country at around this time as well.

The researchers found that about 11.2 percent of non-athlete students engaged in nonmedical prescription opioid use (NPOU). The rate is lower among those who participate in sports or exercise once a week at 8.4 percent. Only 6.5 percent of those who participate in sport or exercise everyday engaged in nonmedical prescription opioid use.

Only 1.8 percent of those who take part in sport or exercise once a week and 1.3 percent of those who participate in sport or exercise everyday used heroin in their lifetime. The rate is higher in non-athletes at 2.9 percent.

The researchers said that sports may come with positive social connections that help deter kids from illicit substance use.

"The results of this study suggest that participation in sports and exercise may serve as a protective factor with respect to NPOU and heroin use," the researchers wrote in their study.

"The physical activity and positive social connections embedded in sports may be positive developmental experiences that can deter youth from serious types of illicit substance use such as NPOU, heroin use, or cocaine use."

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