Can you play sports to get in shape?

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There’s an old saying amongst strength coaches and it goes like this: “You do not play sports to get in shape – you get in shape to play sports.”

I love sports as much as the next guy or gal. The science nerd in me loves watching elite athletes play sports and see how they move, produce force, and accelerate. Plus I have to admit that throwing around the ole’ pigskin with my young nephews makes me feel about as close as I ever will to being Tom Brady.

Playing sports is fun. It’s also a great stress relief and helps to get your mind off of things. Plus a little bit of extra activity never hurt anyone. But that’s about where the benefits end.

The athletes that you see on TV don’t get in shape by playing their sport. In fact, they make the most changes to their physique in the off season when their body doesn’t need to deal with competitions, opponents, the stress of travel, and of course, winning. Sport scientists will tell you that keeping an athlete in shape for an entire season is a difficult task (1). Believe it or not, athletes are probably in worse shape towards the end of a season than they were at the start.

I see this all the time from frustrated clients who spend 4, 5, and even 6 days a week playing soccer, basketball, air hockey,  and any other sport you can think of. Now if you’ve spent the last few years held prisoner by your couch, then playing some round ball will help lose a few pounds. But if you’re in reasonable shape, then relying solely on playing sports will have you spinning your wheels. Here’s why:

Uncontrolled variables

Getting in shape is all about exposing the body to stress and slowly cranking up the intensity over time. For instance, doing 6 sets of intervals and slowly increasing your training to 12 intervals. With sports, this is hard to do. You can play longer, but who has the time for that? Or, you can skip taking a break and just play the whole game, but if you play with subs, you might piss some people off.

Uncontrolled variables, part 2

Losing weight is dependent on your training program. Think of a program like a blueprint. You have a certain amount of work you do, a specific amount of rest, and how hard you work. Your work output is called intensity, and intensity can be difficult to maintain while playing sports. For instance, the average soccer player sprints 20 meters but walks about 6 to 7 miles a game (2). You can sprint more, but that would be a waste of energy. You can scream at your opponents to play harder so you can get a better workout in, but most people will label you a psycho and you might not be invited to play anymore. Instead of controlling how hard you work, you’re at the mercy of the flow of the game.

With points one and two I think you see… you can’t control everything. If you want to lose weight, you do need to be the one in control.

All energy is not created equal

Just because you’re burning calories doesn’t mean you’re burning the right calories. The energy you burn during sprinting is not the same as you would during a long run, and neither are the same as the energy you might burn during an easy bike ride through the neighborhood. Programming a client for specific fat loss is a detailed process and goes far beyond just doing 60 minutes of activity.

The hormones

That detailed process I mentioned above requires the exact amount of work to cause your body to make changes with your hormones. Physical activity for the sake of physical activity means that your metabolism pretty much returns to normal shortly after you’re done. Programming a client in my studio requires that I give them a particular program so their metabolism is elevated 1, 2, and possibly even three days after a session – all due to altering their hormone profile. This is hard to do playing a pick-up game at the local Y.


Injuries are not fun. Most injuries occur because the body was exposed to a stress that it couldn’t handle. Strengthening the tissues – muscles, tendons, etc. – through proper exercise is a way we help prevent them from happening. But they can also happen from repetition. If you’re constantly doing the same activity and trying hard to lose weight, you increase your chances of a strain or even a serious injury.

No one is saying that you should stop playing sports. Like I said, it’s a great way to burn off some stress, have fun, and meet new people. However, it’s not the wisest choice for weight loss. In fact, getting in shape will make playing sports even more fun because you’ll be that much better from all your hard work in the gym.



1. Mujika, Inigo. Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance Champaign, ILL.; Human Kinetics. 2009; pp 116

2. Sporis, G., Ruzic, L,and Lero, G. “The Anaerobic Endurance of Elite Soccer Players Improved After a High Intensity Training Intervention in the 8 Week Conditioning Program.” (2008) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22;2, 559-566

Originally written: August 18, 2014

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