Objective: To determine whether college athletes are at greater risk for maladaptive lifestyle and health-risk behaviors than their nonathletic peers and to identify high risk taking groups by gender, sport, and other identifiers.
Design: Multicenter, cross-sectional study.
Setting: Seven major geographically represented collegiate institutions in the United States.
Participants: A total of 2,298 college athletes and 683 randomized nonathlete controls completed a confidential survey questionnaire between the summer of 1993 and winter of 1994, assessing lifestyle and health-risk behaviors over the previous 12 months.
Main outcome measures: Self-reports of lifestyle behaviors and health risks in the following areas: motor-vehicle safety, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and contraception, mental health, cancer prevention, nutrition, exercise and general preventive health issues.
Results: Athletes demonstrated significantly higher risk-taking behaviors (p < 0.05) than their nonathlete peers in the following areas: less likely always to use seatbelts; less likely always to use helmets with motorcycles, mopeds, and bicycles; more often drive as a passenger with a driver under the influence of alcohol or drugs; greater quantity and frequency of alcoholic beverages; greater frequency of smokeless tobacco and anabolic steroid use; less-safe sex; greater number of sexual partners; less contraceptive use; and more involvement in physical fights. Female athletes reported a higher prevalence of irregular menses, amenorrhea, and stress fractures compared with female nonathletes. Male athletes had more risk-taking behaviors than did female athletes (p < 0.05), and athletes in contact sports demonstrated more risk-taking behaviors than did athletes in noncontact sports (p < 0.05). Athletes with one risk-taking behavior were likely to have multiple risk-taking behaviors (p < 0.05).
Conclusions: College athletes appear to be at higher risk than their nonathletic peers for certain maladaptive lifestyle behaviors. Athlete subgroups at highest risk include male athletes and athletes participating in contact sports. Athletes at risk for one high-risk behavior demonstrated an increased risk for multiple risk-taking behaviors. Preventive health interventions deserve further study to determine strategies for risk reduction in high-risk groups.