Recreational sports leagues for adults

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Expert Opinion

Strategies with this rating are recommended by credible, impartial experts but have limited research documenting effects; further research, often with stronger designs, is needed to confirm effects.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

Recreational sports leagues provide opportunities for adults to play at beginner, intermediate and competitive levels in many athletic games. Soccer, ultimate frisbee, softball, volleyball, kickball, basketball, and various other team sports are offered at differing skill levels to encourage participation regardless of skill1.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased physical activity

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased physical activity

  • Improved mental health

What does the research say about effectiveness?

Increasing access to recreational sports leagues and their facilities is a suggested strategy to increase adult physical activity2, 3, 4, 5. Available evidence suggests that opportunities to participate in recreational sports leagues and use their facilities and equipment are associated with increased participation in physical sport activities6, 7. Adults participating in team sports are more likely to get recommended levels of aerobic exercise than those participating in individual sports1. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Evidence has shown recreational soccer participation improves fitness and cardiometabolic risk factors among adults8. Surveys suggest adults participating in team sports as their primary physical activity may have a decreased risk of depression1. Team sport participants report playing for enjoyment, social interactions with teammates, and fitness and weight loss goals9.

Participation rates in organized sport activities are higher among males than females, lower among individuals with low incomes than those with higher incomes, and decline with age9, 10. Data also suggest participants in team sports are more likely to be younger, male, black or Hispanic, employed, and single, while participants in individual sports are more likely to be older, married, white, and retired1.

Implementation Examples

Adult recreational sports leagues exist across the country. Sports Monster offers a searchable database of programs in some cities11. Adult sports leagues are often run by non-profit organizations, a local YMCA or JCC12, 13, or parks and recreation departments14, 15.

Implementation Resources

US DHHS-PAG - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS). Physical activity guidelines for Americans (PAG).


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1 Pharr 2019 - Pharr JR, Lough NL, Terencio MA. Health and sociodemographic differences between individual and team sport participants. Sports (Basel). 2019;7(6):150.

2 HPbD - Healthy Places by Design (HPbD). Advances community-led action and proven, place-based strategies to ensure health and wellbeing for all.

3 US DHHS-Be active - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS). Be active your way: A guide for adults.

4 WIPAN-Worksites - Wisconsin Nutrition and Physical Activity (WIPAN). What works in worksites.

5 WIPAN-Communities - Wisconsin Partnership for Activity and Nutrition (WIPAN). Active community environments.

6 Diez Roux 2007 - Diez Roux AV, Evenson KR, McGinn AP, et al. Availability of recreational resources and physical activity in adults. American Journal of Public Health. 2007;97(3):493-9.

7 Wendel-Vos 2007 - Wendel-Vos W, Droomers M, Kremers S, Brug J, van Lenthe F. Potential environmental determinants of physical activity in adults: a systematic review. Obesity Reviews. 2007;8(5):425–40.

8 Bellissimo 2018 - Bellissimo MP, Galaviz KI, Paskert MC, et al. Cardiometabolic risk reduction through recreational group sport interventions in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2018;93(10):1375-1396.

9 RWJF-Sports and health 2015 - National Public Radio/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health. Sports and health in America. Princeton: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF); 2015.

10 Cochrane-Priest 2008a - Priest N, Armstrong R, Doyle J, Waters E. Interventions implemented through sporting organisations for increasing participation in sport. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2008;(3): CD004812.

11 Sports Monster - Sports Monster. America’s favorite adult recreational leagues.

12 YMCA-Adult sports - Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Adult team sports.

13 JCC-Fitness - Jewish Community Center Association (JCC), Programs and services at JCCs of North America: Health & fitness.

14 Cape Girardeau-Sports - City of Cape Girardeau. Sports leagues, locations, events.

15 NRPA-Recreation and health - National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Recreation and health.