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Innovation and soccer: UTC & Operation Get Active measure sports’ impact

A photo shows seven kids and two coaches on a soccer filed posing.
Members of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga's team pose at a community event.


Every afternoon when the school bell rings, hundreds of elementary school kids across Chattanooga head to soccer practice. They are part of Operation Get Active (OGA), a health initiative program that uses the game of soccer to encourage young people in the Chattanooga area to live active and healthy lifestyles. The program focuses on physical activity, nutrition, and psychology.

Operation Get Active can make a huge difference in a kid’s life. The CDC recommends that children get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each day. However, schools in Tennessee are not required to provide recess, and they’re even allowed to take recess away as a punishment. Kids need to move, they need to run and play. But, most kids in Tennessee aren’t getting the exercise they need.

Since launching in 2016, more than 1400 kids have come through Operation Get Active. We’ve seen the impact with our own eyes — Iker from Hixson Elementary school, had his first season with OGA this fall 2018. He started out the season more on the shy side with the desire to play goalie, but no skills or confidence to actually do it. As the season progressed, he became more confident and his skills improved. By the end of the season tournament, he asked to play goalie and had a huge smile on his face the whole night, even when he wasn’t playing goalie.

We’ve come to believe that kids who do OGA get more exercise, eat better, and have improved mental health. But, we wanted to test our theory — does OGA actually make kids healthier?

So, OGA and UTC’s department of Health and Human Performance have teamed up to find out.

During the Spring of 2018, 17 children took part in a study. The students were enrolled at Wallace A Smith and Hardy Elementary Schools, two schools in different parts of town with different socioeconomic makeups. Six of the 17 students were OGA participants, and the others were not. The study aimed to measure the physical effects of participating in OGA.

Each student in the study wore a physical activity monitor for one week to track their daily step count. We compared the step counts of OGA and non-OGA children. We also counted steps for the OGA kids on days that they had soccer practice and days that they didn’t.

We found that OGA kids had an average of 12,418 steps on days they went to soccer practice. That number is about 3,000 steps per day higher than the step count for kids who weren’t enrolled in OGA. (It’s also about 3,000 steps per day higher than the step count for OGA kids on days that they did not have practice.)

A graphic compares the number of steps per day taken by kids enrolled in the Operation Get Active Program, vs. kids who are not enrolled. A kid enrolled in the program takes an average of 10,802 steps per day, whereas a kid not enrolled takes 9,513.

While the number of children in the study was small, these data suggest that there are potentially important increases in physical activity levels provided by the OGA program. This research project was a great first step in to see the effectiveness of the OGA program in Chattanooga. Our future plans are to seek grants to conduct a project similar to this one on a much larger scale. A grant would allow us to purchase better trackers that track multiple factors, including calorie consumption, heart rate, quality of sleep, etc. We would also be able to conduct this research in multiple schools at different times to examine different questions, including whether being in a low-income area affects results.

Due to the findings of the project, OGA has been given the opportunity to share the research project and results at the US Soccer Foundation Symposium in Washington DC in March 2019. We’re excited to encourage other programs to conduct similar studies and to expand our study here in Chattanooga in the future.

Marissa Guarnieri is a coaching and events coordinator with Operation Get Active and the Chattanooga Football Club Foundation. Karissa Peyer, PhD is professor in the department of Health and Human Performance at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.