By Published: May 8, 2019

An aerial shot of Folsom Field

How have former CU Boulder student-athletes fared long-term compared to Buffs who didn’t play sports in college?

What’s the university doing right to support their lasting health and wellness? And what could it and other collegiate programs do better?

These are the questions CU Boulder research faculty and the Athletic Department will set out to answer this summer, via a first-of-its-kind study of 2,000 alumni who graduated during the past quarter-century.

“No one has ever done a study quite like this before, comparing student-athlete alumni to non-student-athlete alumni across a long period of time and a wide range of health measures,” said Principal Investigator Theresa Hernández, a professor of psychology and neuroscience. “It will give us an idea of what we’ve been doing well, what improvements we’ve made over the last 25 years, and where we can improve further.”

The study, funded via a two-year $200,000 grant from the Pac-12 Student Athlete Health and Wellbeing Initiative, will survey 1,000 alumni Buffs from the football, basketball, soccer and cross-country teams and compare them to 1,000 age-and-gender-matched alumni who did not play collegiate sports.

Study subjects will have graduated two, five, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years ago. The hour-long survey, administered online or on paper, will assess a range of physical and mental health measures, from diabetes, heart disease, obesity, activity levels and neurodegenerative disease to depression, anxiety and perceived stress levels.

The researchers will also look at how alumni (student-athletes and non-student-athletes) from different socioeconomic backgrounds or those who were first-generation college students have fared health-wise after graduation.

“If there is a certain demographic that is not doing as well as others, why is that and what can we do to better support them?” said Hernandez, who also serves as associate dean for research in the College of Arts & Sciences. “This study will help us find out.”

Filling the research gap

An estimated 5.2 million people played Division I sports between 1981 and 2017. This year alone, 8,000 students will compete for Pac-12 universities.

Yet research on the long-term health impacts of playing collegiate sports has been scarce and mixed.

One large study of former Finnish elite athletes found they reported lower levels of depression and neuroticism, greater satisfaction with life, and maintained greater physical activity later in life than non-athletes. But other studies have found former athletes have more joint problems and exercise less than non-athletes.

In addition to filling that research gap, the new study will also shed light on the effect new programs implemented at CU Boulder in recent years are having.

Over the past decade, the Athletic Department has added two full-time dietitians and two full-time mental health practitioners, boosted its athletic trainer-to-athlete ratio substantially, and introduced an array of complementary and integrative health practices - from chiropractic to acupressure – for its student-athletes.

“We put a lot of demands on our athletes, with practice, competitions, and team events on top of their already challenging plate,” said Senior Associate Athletic Director Miguel Rueda, who leads the department’s health and wellness programs. “It’s our responsibility to provide them with the best holistic health programming we possibly can and the information we get from our alumni will help us focus on where to put our energy going forward.”

Ultimately, in addition to benefiting CU Boulder’s roughly 375 student-athletes, the information gleaned from the study may also improve health and wellness programs across college sports.

“We want the best experience possible for our student-athletes, both while they are here and after they graduate,” said CU Boulder Athletic Director Rick George. “We are excited to be involved with this study because the results will influence our department, and hopefully others across the country, as we provide resources to best support the psychological and physical needs of future student-athletes.”