Why elite athletes lose their drive once they move on from their sport

By Shawn C. Sorenson / Special to The Washington Post

Published Aug 7, 2014 at 12:02AM

Question: Twenty years from now, who’s more likely to be a regular, healthy exerciser? A) The all-American athlete, with the ripped physique, seemingly infinite endurance, superhuman strength and supremely tuned agility? Or B) The decidedly less-impressive specimen sitting in the bleachers?

Intuition suggests A. Since athletes know how to exercise, love exercise and have been doing it all their lives, maintaining healthy exercise habits should be easy, right? Except, well, it’s not.

In a series of studies, the first of which was published in the journal Sports Health, my colleagues and I examined the health and exercise habits of nearly 500 students and alumni from the University of Southern California. They included current and former student-athletes — some of whom competed at the Olympics or went on to be pros — as well as nonathletes who never played college sports.

Predictably, current student-athletes reported being more active, averaging 15 hours of weekly exercise, 11 more than students who didn’t play sports. Three out of four said exercise was “very important” in their lives (compared with just one in six nonathletes). And 86 percent met healthy exercise guidelines: 150 minutes of cardio and two sessions of strength training per week. Student-athletes were 30 times as likely as nonathlete students to do so.

But among alumni, who on average competed in the 1980s and 1990s, being a former college athlete had nothing to do with being a healthy exerciser. Both athlete and nonathlete alums reported an average of five hours a week of exercise — most of that cardio. Just 40 percent met the healthy exercise guidelines. That’s admittedly twice the national average, suggesting that USC alumni as a whole are relatively active. The surprise, though, was that the former jocks were just as likely to become couch potatoes.

It wasn’t always this way. At least two earlier studies — one tracking Finnish athletes who’d competed for some period between 1920 and 1965, and the other looking at NFL players who’d been part of the league during the 1958 season — found former athletes more likely to exercise throughout their lives and to enjoy health benefits as a result.

So what’s changed? In recent decades, athletic training has become more specialized, structured and supervised. Gone are the days when Sir Roger Bannister (the first to run a sub-four-minute mile) sneaked in training as a medical school hobby. Once it was common for fall’s football stars to dabble in baseball in the spring — or take the offseason off. For modern athletes, competitive sports are an integral part of life, a major year-round commitment, an opportunity for financial or professional rewards and an important source of social and psychological identity.

“There’s a routine and a lifestyle that you’ve built around this sport when you’ve been involved with it since elementary school,” says Jennifer Lushao, a former Rice University swimmer. “It just kind of dominates your life physically, mentally and emotionally.”

You might assume that after all that training, lingering injuries could get in the way of exercise later in life. And certainly, for some athletes, they do. But that didn’t explain the former athletes in our study. We found no association between joint health and exercise patterns, and health-related quality of life was similar for athlete and nonathlete alums. Something else is going on.

From a young age, modern athletes become accustomed to executing a carefully planned training regimen under constant guidance and oversight. They are supported by an ever-growing infrastructure of coaches, trainers and support staff. College athletes might have a head coach, position coach, strength and conditioning coach, athletic trainer, physical therapist, dietitian, sports psychologist and academic counselor assigned to them.

“Everything is totally planned out for you — class scheduling, practice hours, tutoring,” says Amanda Smith, a former USC swimmer. “I am the kind of person who thrived as an athlete because I did great with structure.”

When that structure disappears at the end of an athletic career, the freedom can be liberating. “You literally go overnight from being required to be somewhere doing strenuous, structured physical activity over 20 hours a week to having absolutely no obligations to do anything physical whatsoever,” Lushao says.

Yet many athletes have trouble making the transition to a world in which they return home from work tired, stressed and not at all thrilled by the prospect of trekking alone to the gym to do exercise that’s “good for you.”

“There’s this feeling that all college athletes are internally motivated,” says David Epstein, a sportswriter and former middle-distance runner at Columbia University. “But from seeing what became of my own training partners from college, I think some of them were motivated by being good and basically went cold turkey when their competitive days were over.”

“For most former athletes,” says Tim Conley, who played offensive line at Oklahoma and Sacramento State before a career in professional football, “the sole motivation to exercise is their sport. Once that is done, the motivation ends. It becomes, ‘What am I training for?’”

“My biggest challenge is exercising with no clear goal,” says former Rice hurdler Frank Miller Jr. “Being healthy in general isn’t enough to motivate me. I need a ball to chase and a score of some kind. I get bored without a semi-immediate reward.”

Even those who can motivate themselves to go to the gym may have trouble translating the highly specialized training that modern sports demand into a well-rounded workout routine: including elements of aerobic endurance, muscular strength and power, balance, agility and flexibility.

So in the end, retired athletes struggle just as much as the rest of us to make exercise a regular habit. This suggests a need for better resources and guidance, from colleges, the NCAA and professional leagues, to help transition them to healthy lives beyond their athletic careers.

It highlights that education programs for athletes and nonathletes alike won’t make much headway with the message that people should work out because it will help them avoid obesity, disease and premature death. People already know that — and it’s not getting them off the couch. The evidence suggests that habitual exercise arises from intrinsic motivation. When we exercise because of how it makes us feel, how it reduces our stress and how it offers quality time with people we care about, we’re more likely to keep doing it.

It should also make us wonder about the level of investment required of today’s athletes. Yes, intense training can offer benefits for both sports performance and personal development. But we may be putting too much value on specialization, professionalization and external rewards. Being an all-American athlete shouldn’t come at the expense of lifelong well-being.