Sports Injuries and School Start Times - Doing the Math

If early school start times are associated with chronic sleep deprivation, and if chronic sleep deprivation is associated with a 68% increase in sports injuries, it doesn’t take long to do the math.

My teen started his wrestling season with an injury that required sutures and ended the season with an injury that took him out of the running for 3rd in the Portage Trail Conference.  Unfortunately he is only one of many teens to incur injuries in every sport, every season.  Worries about these things keep many parents and coaches awake at night, which is ironic considering that sleep deprivation may play a significant role in injuries among student athletes.

At the American Academy of Pediatrics national conference in October, Dr. Mathew Milewksi reported that teens who are chronically sleep-deprived experience 68% more sports injuries than their teammates who obtain more sleep, a correlation not expected by his research team. "We were surprised to find that sleep played such an important role in athletic injury," Dr. Milewski is quoted in a Reuters interview.  "We thought that having a private coach and doing sports outside of school and doing sports more often would increase the rates of injury, not the lack of sleep."

Many sleep experts, however, are not surprised by that study.  They know that sleep plays a vital role – particularly among still-growing youth.  We utilize sleep to reorganize and fine-tune cognitive functioning (neuronal ‘plasticity’ has recently been examined in relation to sleep), and during sleep we release growth hormones and engage in tissue repair.  If you want to function like a well-oiled
machine and bounce back like a fresh new rubber band you need your sleep.  Athletes (and non-athletes) who obtain good sleep are more coordinated, faster, stronger, and heal better.  They also have better impulse control and engage in better decision-making due to increased metabolic activity in the pre-frontal region of the brain. 

So is the answer to put my teen to bed earlier? Unfortunately it’s not that simple.  In the last two decades researchers discovered that during puberty our adolescents experience a temporary later shift in their circadian rhythm.  Because of this ‘phase-delay’ my son tosses and turns until around 11pm.  There’s no TV in his room, no cell phone, he doesn’t pound a Red Bull or eat a bag of candy at 6pm, and we don’t have him jog around the block at 8pm.  I even shine a $270.00 therapy light on him while he’s eating his breakfast to fool his pineal gland into a non-pubertal pattern.  Like most American households the problem isn’t bad sleep hygiene or being a bad mother, it’s battling Mother Nature. 

I do the math nearly every night: I know that adolescents require 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep for optimum health.  I know that my son’s school starts before 7:30am.  I know the bus comes at 6:35am.  I know that when I wake him up at 6am he has gotten only 7 hours of sleep.  I know that 91.8% of teens with school start times before 8:30am are chronically sleep deprived and average 6.75 hours of sleep on school nights.  I know that teens who sleep more than 2 hours later than usual on the weekend experience ‘jet lag’ effects and have higher rates of grade failure – so I know that weekend catch-up is not the answer.

I do know, however, that moving middle and high school start times to one hour later could increase that national average to 7.75 hours.  Despite assumptions that later start times would result in kids going to bed later at night, study after study after study shows that when schools adopt later start times teens go to bed at the same time and therefore obtain more sleep. 

And a 68% reduction in sports injuries is worth any change our schools can make. 

People often oppose changing school start times due to the possible negative effect on athletics – particularly practice schedules.  To get the straight scoop I emailed Athletics Directors from schools around the country that adopted later start times to ask them how much it impacted sports, and I was pleasantly surprised by the comments that ranged from ‘it worked out better than we anticipated’ to ‘our teams are among the best in the state’.  In Fayette County, Kentucky, where high schools moved from 7:30 am to 8:30 am and in the two years afterwards the county noted a reduction in teen auto accidents, the AD told me the time change ‘has never been an issue’. In St. George’s school, which hosts 48 teams in 22 sports and most students are required to participate in 2 sports per season, the AD told me the change was ‘one of the best things our school has ever done’ – a sentiment echoed by administration and teachers given the documented improvement in attention and grades. 

People are surprised and sometimes skeptical that improving sleep can do so much.  But when we consider the fact that we spend 1/3 of our life in this state it must be important – and researchers are proving that importance with more and more studies every month.

Local petitions have been formed around the nation asking schools to heed the research - search SignOn.org to see if there is a petition in your area.  A national petition has been created seeking legislation that limits schools from starting before 8am: http://signon.org/sign/promote-legislation-to

Advocate for our kids – they’re worth it.


For more information on the research:  http://startschoollater.pbworks.com/w/page/58217472/Start%20School%20Later%20Reference%20List

Milewksi interview: http://www.modernmedicine.com/news/chronic-lack-sleep-makes-teens-prone-sports-injuries

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Mr Lundt March 10, 2013 at 07:20 PM
KHD Blindly accepting a guest writer to a news paper is silly. It doesn't mean they are all wrong but due diligence is in order. Doing the slightest homework would help. You could start by reading the comments section of the link you posted.
KHD March 10, 2013 at 10:35 PM
I did read them and people were arguing about a miriad of things. All I am saying is we shouldn't spend money on school start times. The best way to find out where the money goes is to look at our budget.
Mr Lundt March 10, 2013 at 11:40 PM
KHD On that point you and I totally agree...:)
Stacy Simera March 11, 2013 at 04:37 PM
Changing school start times shouldn't have to cost money. But even if it does, a Hamilton Project (Brookings Institute) report estimates a 'conservative' 9 to 1 benefit to cost ratio in delaying school start times for adolescents: http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2011/09/organization-jacob-rockoff
JD March 13, 2013 at 03:58 AM
This is why some are hostile to you Stacy, you do not know anything about the district, its needs, or the costs involved. Changing the times WILL cost money in Greenfield and you should know that by now. The Brookings institute also did a study on smaller class sizes touting that as well. The change that was being considered was 30 minutes to an hour maximum, hardly a good use of $200,000 in the face of being far behind area districts in technology, having class sizes in the mid to upper 30's, and other more pressing issues considering that many nearby districts start fairly early as well and seem to be doing just fine.


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