Boys who exercise earn more as adults, according to 30-year Finnish study

Children who participate regularly in physical activity not only set themselves up for good health but possibly also higher earnings when they start working in adulthood. In a 30-year study that began in 1980, Finnish researchers have found, among men, childhood physical activity to be positively associated with long-term earnings.

Reporting in the July 2016 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, the researchers found a higher level of leisure-time physical activity at the age of nine, 12 and 15 years was linked with an approximate 12 to 25 per cent increase in average earnings over a 10-year period, compared to those who did little exercise in childhood. This held true even after accounting for individual and family background factors such as an individual’s chronic conditions and body fat, parents’ education and physical activity, and family income.

Among women, however, no such relation was observed, says Jaana T. Kari from Likes – Research Centre for Sport and Health Sciences, who led a team of researchers from various Finnish institutions.

From a policy perspective, the findings are two-fold, Kari says. If childhood physical activity can boost an individual’s labour productivity, increasing participation in physical activities may constitute an important policy goal.

Second, encouraging children to be physically active, providing them with equal possibilities to participate in physical activities regardless of their socioeconomic background, and targeting interventions to children and youth with the lowest physical activity levels should become an important policy objective, she says.

The study drew baseline data from the ongoing longitudinal Young Finns Study (YFS). The study included a total of nearly 5,000 children who were 9, 12 or 15 years of age at the time when physical activity was measured through questionnaires. The participants were randomly chosen boys (51 per cent) and girls (49 per cent) from five Finnish university cities (Helsinki, Turku, Tampere, Oulu, and Kuopio) and their rural surroundings.

The children were followed until 2010, when the average age was 41 years. Their earnings were drawn from the Finnish Longitudinal Employer-Employee Data (FLEED) of Statistics Finland and covered a 10-year period from 2000 to 2010.

A number of previous studies had established a positive connection between physical activity and labour market outcomes. There is evidence that former high school and college athletes, as well as those who are physically active in adulthood, typically perform better in the labour market in terms of wages and employment probability.

Kari and her team suggest four reasons for the correlation: first, childhood physical activity can lead to health gains, which are rewarded later in working life with higher productivity and therefore higher earnings. Second, physical activity facilitates networking, which promotes career development.

Third, physical activity may improve non-cognitive skills, such as teamwork skills, sociability, or discipline, which are rewarded in the labour market. Finally, physical activity might serve as a signal to employers of good health, motivation, ambition and productivity, and therefore causes positive discrimination, which explains the wage gap.

But why was there no relation found among women?

“The differences in the labour force participation between fertility-age men and women might partly explain the results,” the researchers say. “Our results indirectly support this hypothesis because a positive association between physical activity and earnings was found among women when the employment months were controlled.”