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Adolescent participation in sports and adult physical activity

      Abstract

      Background

      Physical activity in adolescence has been reported to enhance physical activity in adulthood, but detailed information on the enhancing effect of different types of adolescent sports is lacking. We evaluated the association between participation in different types of adolescent sports and physical activity in adulthood.

      Methods

      The sample comprised 7794 males and females who responded to the mailed questions on physical activity status at age 14 years and at age 31 years in follow-up surveys of the Northern Finland 1966 birth cohort. The associations between adolescent participation in different sports and adult physical activity was examined by multinomial logistic regression.

      Results

      Frequent participation in sports after school hours in adolescence was associated with a high level of physical activity in adulthood. In males, adolescent participation in ball games, intensive endurance sports, track and field, and combat sports was associated with a high or very high level of adult activity. In females, the same applied to adolescent participation in running, orienteering, track and field, cycling, gymnastics, and riding. Adolescent participation in ball games increased participation in ball games in adulthood, especially in males, while participation in cross-country skiing, running, and orienteering provided the greatest stimulation to carry over of some endurance sport to adulthood.

      Conclusions

      Participation in sports at least once a week among females and twice a week among males was associated with high level of physical activity in later life. Adolescent participation in the intensive endurance sports, and some sports that require and encourage diversified sports skills, appeared to be most beneficial with respect to the enhancement of adult physical activity.

      Introduction

      T he benefits of a physically active lifestyle for health have been strongly emphasized during the last few years.
      U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
      Participation in sports in childhood and adolescence has been reported to increase the probability of a high level of physical activity in later life.
      • Engström L.-M.
      The process of socialization into keep-fit activities.
      ,
      • Telama R.
      • Leskinen E.
      • Yang X.
      Stability of habitual physical activity and sport participation a longitudinal tracking study.
      ,
      • Telama R.
      • Yang X.
      • Laakso L.
      • Viikari J.
      Physical activity in childhood and adolescence as predictor of physical activity in young adulthood.
      ,
      • Vanreusel B.
      • Renson R.
      • Beunen G.
      • et al.
      A longitudinal study of youth sport participation and adherence to sport in adulthood.
      ,
      • Yang X.
      • Telama R.
      • Leino M.
      • Viikari J.
      Factors explaining the physical activity of young adults the importance of early socialization.
      However, detailed information about the continuity of different types of sports from adolescence into adulthood is lacking. The types of physical activity that would be most beneficial for adolescents in terms of lifelong participation in physical activity are unknown. Such information would be useful in planning physical education lessons and other sport opportunities for adolescents, and in developing support for those sports that are more likely to enhance a lifelong commitment to physical activity.
      The main aim of the study was to evaluate the association between participation in various types of sports in adolescence and the level and types of physical activity in adulthood. The social determinants of participation in various types of sports in adolescence were also assessed.

      Methods

      Sample and study setting

      The study population was the 1966 birth cohort
      • Rantakallio P.
      The longitudinal study of the Northern Finland birth cohort of 1966.
      in Finland’s two northernmost provinces (N=12,058). The study focused on the follow-up evaluations carried out in 1980 and 1997–1998, at age 14 and 31 years, respectively. At both ages, questionnaires were mailed to all subjects whose addresses were known. The response rates were 97% (n=11,399) and 75% (n=8767), respectively. The present study included 3664 males and 4130 females who responded to all questions about the level of physical activity both at age 14 and 31 years. An additional questionnaire about types of physical activity at 31 years was filled out during the medical examination performed on subjects who still lived in Northern Finland and those who had moved to the Helsinki metropolitan area. This questionnaire was completed by 5286 persons. There was no difference in physical activity level at 14 years between those who returned and those who did not return their forms at age 31.
      We obtained participants’ informed consent, and the study was approved by the Ethics Committee of the University of Oulu.

      Physical activity at age 14 years

      At age 14 years, subjects were asked how often they participated in sports after school hours. Participants also provided the main types of sports that they practiced. The types of sports were coded in the following 20 groups:
      • Ice hockey
      • Soccer
      • Volleyball
      • Basketball
      • Other ball games (squash, badminton, tennis, table tennis, bandy, Finnish baseball, and ball games in general)
      • Cross-country skiing
      • Running (and jogging)
      • Swimming
      • Cycling
      • Walking
      • Orienteering (running in the forest with a map and a compass)
      • Skating
      • Track and field
      • Gymnastics
      • Downhill skiing
      • Riding
      • Dancing
      • Combat sports (judo, wrestling, boxing)
      • Strength training (weight lifting, body building, strength training)
      • Other sports (shooting, sailing, hiking, ski jumping, and other less common sports).
      To evaluate the social determinants of the participation in various sports, adolescents were asked about membership in a sports club outside school (yes vs no); grade in school sports; father’s occupation; and the place of residence. Grade in school sports was evaluated based on skills, action, and attitude during physical education lessons on a scale from 4 to 10. Social class of the family was categorized according to the prestige of father’s occupation, using the following Finnish classification: I and II, skilled professionals; III, skilled workers; and IV, unskilled workers and farmers.
      Finnish Bureau of Statistics
      If father’s occupation in 1980 was unknown, it was replaced by his occupation in 1966. If the mother was single, her occupation in 1980 or in 1966 was used. The family’s place of residence was classified into urban or rural, according to the type of municipality in 1980.

      Physical activity at age 31 years

      At age 31, the subjects were asked how often they participated in light and brisk physical activities. Response alternatives were daily, four to six times a week, two to three times a week, once a week, two to three times a month, and once a month or less often. The duration of one bout of activity was considered separately for light and brisk activities with the following alternatives: >90 minutes, 60 to 90 minutes, 40 to 59 minutes, 20 to 39 minutes, <20 minutes, and not at all. In the questionnaire, the term “brisk” was defined as physical activity causing at least some sweating and breathlessness, and the term “light” as physical activity causing no sweating or breathlessness.
      The subjects were classified into four groups (very active, active, moderately active, and inactive) according to the frequency, intensity, and duration of physical activity that they had been engaged in. The very active group exercised briskly four times a week or more often, and the active group two to three times a week, at least 20 minutes at a time. The physical activity level in these groups roughly met the recommendation for the development and maintenance of cardiorespiratory fitness.
      American College of Sports Medicine
      The recommended quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, and flexibility in healthy adults.
      The moderately active group exercised briskly once a week, or more often than once a week but less than 20 minutes at a time, or participated in light physical activity at least four times a week. This group did not meet the recommendations for fitness but was not totally inactive either. The inactive group participated in brisk physical activity less often than once a week, and in light activity less often than four times a week. The inactive group did not meet the recommendation for enhancing either fitness
      American College of Sports Medicine
      The recommended quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, and flexibility in healthy adults.
      or health.
      • Pate R.R.
      • Pratt M.
      • Blair S.N.
      • et al.
      Physical activity and public health a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine.
      The subjects also reported how often they participated in certain types of physical activity during the previous year in the season that was suitable for those activities. Those who participated in a certain sport once a week or more often were classified as participants in that particular sport. The activities were walking, cycling, cross-country skiing, swimming, running, ball games, aerobics or gymnastics, gym training, and outdoor activities (including gardening, hunting, and hiking).

      Statistical analyses

      The association between adolescent participation in sports and adult levels of physical activity was examined by multinomial logistic regression. The association between different types of adolescent and adult activities was explored by cross-tabulation, presenting results only for those adolescent sports that were associated with a high overall level of adult activity. The association between background characteristics and participation in different sports in adolescence was examined by cross-tabulation. The analyses were performed using SPSS, Version 9 (SPSS Inc., Chicago, Illinois, 1999).

      Results

      Physical activity at ages 14 and 31

      At age 14, the percentages of those who participated in sports daily, every other day, twice a day, once a day, and less often than once a day were 23%, 25%, 22%, 12%, and 18%, respectively, for males, and 13%, 15%, 23%, 20%, and 29%, respectively, for females. At age 14, the most common types of sports were cross-country skiing, running, ice hockey, skating, soccer, and swimming (Table 1). Subjects commonly reported participation in several types of sports at the same time. At age 14, 30% reported participation in one, 34% in two, and 21% in three or more types of sports.
      Table 1Participation in types of sports at age 14 years
      SportMales n=3664Females n=4130Total N=7794
      %n%n%n
      Ball games
      Ice hockey36.813491.14517.91394
      Soccer21.27751.87510.9850
      Volleyball8.63158.43478.5662
      Basketball5.01854.71924.8377
      Other ball games11.74306.12528.8682
      Endurance sports
      Cross-country skiing24.991126.3108725.61998
      Running11.241125.3104518.71456
      Swimming7.427214.158010.9852
      Cycling5.92168.43457.2561
      Walking0.9346.72784.0312
      Orienteering1.4510.8351.186
      Other individual sports
      Skating11.843118.877615.51207
      Track and field8.53106.62727.5582
      Gymnastics0.62213.25447.3566
      Downhill skiing4.51653.21323.8297
      Riding015.22132.7214
      Dancing0.264.11692.2175
      Combat sports2.6951.1451.8140
      Strength training sports3.01090.271.5116
      Other less common sports3.61311.0402.2171
      At age 31, the percentages of very active, active, moderately active, and inactive persons were 13%, 28%, 29%, and 30%, respectively, for males, and 12%, 29%, 25%, and 24%, respectively, for females. At age 31, walking, cycling, and outdoor activities were the most commonly reported types of physical activity (Table 2). The level of overall physical activity did not differ between those who returned only the postal enquiry about physical activity level at age 31 and those who also answered the questions about various types of sports in the clinical examination.
      Table 2Participation in types of physical activity at age 31 years
      SportMales n=2488Females n=2798Total N=5286
      %n%n%n
      Walking48.6120870.1196260.03170
      Cycling43.0106956.2157350.02642
      Cross-country skiing18.546015.342716.8887
      Running19.348110.629614.7777
      Swimming7.01739.32608.2433
      Ball games26.96698.323117.0900
      Aerobics/gymnastics5.714329.281618.1959
      Gym training16.440910.529513.3704
      Outdoor activities41.0102141.9117241.52193

      Association between adolescent sports and adult physical activity level

      Participation in sports by males at least twice a week and by females at least once a week was associated with being physically active or very active in adulthood, compared to participation in sports less than once a week (Figure 1).
      Figure thumbnail GR1
      Figure 1Odds ratios (OR) and 95% confidence intervals for being active or very active vs inactive at age 31 years, according to the frequency of participation in sports after school hours at age 14 years. Results from multinomial logistic regression.
      In males, participation in ice hockey, soccer, volleyball, other ball games, cross-country skiing, running, and track and field in adolescence was associated with a high level of physical activity in adulthood (Table 3). In females, the same applied to participation in running, cycling, track and field, and gymnastics. In addition, males’ participation in soccer, volleyball, other ball games, running, orienteering, track and field, and combat sports in adolescence, and females’ participation in running, track and field, riding, and orienteering in adolescence, was associated with a very high level of adult physical activity. Participation in other types of sports (e.g., swimming, walking, skating, down-hill skiing, strength sports, and other less common sports) in adolescence was not related to a high level of physical activity in adulthood.
      Table 3Multinomial regression of physical activity level
      Active = participation in brisk exercise at least two times a week, at least 20 minutes at a time; very active = participation in brisk exercise at least four times a week, at least 20 minutes at a time; inactive = participation in brisk exercise less often than once a week and in light exercise less often than four times a week.
      at age 31 years on types of sports at age 14 years
      Sport (yes vs no)Males at age 31 (n=3664)Females at age 31 (n=4130)
      Active vs inactiveVery active vs inactiveActive vs inactiveVery active vs inactive
      OR
      Adjusted for participation in all other types of sports mentioned in the table.
      95% CIOR95% CIOR
      Adjusted for participation in all other types of sports mentioned in the table.
      95% CIOR
      Adjusted for participation in all other types of sports mentioned in the table.
      95% CI
      Ball games
      Ice hockey1.431.18–1.741.050.82–1.341.600.72–3.521.460.52–4.13
      Soccer1.321.05–1.661.871.43–2.460.890.49–1.620.810.35–1.84
      Volleyball1.661.20–2.281.571.07–2.311.240.91–1.680.990.65–1.50
      Basketball1.270.85–1.891.070.65–1.761.310.88–1.951.060.62–1.83
      Other ball games1.801.36–2.361.451.03–2.041.010.72–1.430.780.48–1.26
      Endurance sports
      Cross-country skiing1.271.03–1.561.120.86–1.461.160.94–1.421.240.95–1.61
      Running1.501.13–2.001.431.00–2.041.341.09–1.641.441.12–1.87
      Swimming1.090.79–1.510.970.63–1.500.990.77–1.280.900.64–1.26
      Cycling0.860.58–1.250.740.44–1.251.431.05–2.000.970.63–1.51
      Walking1.250.47–3.301.000.27–3.811.170.83–1.641.220.78–1.89
      Orienteering1.000.40–2.513.641.60–8.231.120.35–3.893.771.24–11.50
      Other individual sports
      Skating1.000.76–1.320.830.58–1.201.100.87–1.380.910.67–1.23
      Track and field1.631.19–2.252.191.52–3.141.491.05–2.121.621.05–2.50
      Gymnastics0.930.31–2.810.930.24–3.681.301.01–1.681.110.80–1.55
      Downhill skiing1.100.72–1.671.330.80–2.201.080.68–1.700.800.42–1.51
      Riding1.220.82–1.821.821.15–2.88
      Dancing1.270.81–1.991.530.88–2.63
      Combat sports1.250.71–2.222.261.25–4.121.720.76–3.891.230.41–3.71
      Strength training sports1.060.65–1.730.600.28–1.26
      Other less common sports1.270.80–2.011.350.78–2.350.450.17–1.201.160.45–3.03
      Note: Statistically significant odds ratios are italicized.
      CI, confidence interval; OR, odds ratio.
      a Active = participation in brisk exercise at least two times a week, at least 20 minutes at a time; very active = participation in brisk exercise at least four times a week, at least 20 minutes at a time; inactive = participation in brisk exercise less often than once a week and in light exercise less often than four times a week.
      b Adjusted for participation in all other types of sports mentioned in the table.

      Adolescent sports and types of physical activity in adulthood

      In males, participation in various ball games at age 14 was associated with participation in ball games at age 31 (Table 4). For example, 40% of males who had played soccer at age 14 participated in some kind of ball game at age 31, whereas the average prevalence of participation in ball games was 27%. Males’ participation in cross-country skiing and running in adolescence was associated with frequent participation in walking, cross-country skiing, and running in adulthood. Adolescent orienteering was related to increased adult participation in running in both genders. In males, adolescent running and orienteering were associated with participation in aerobics or gymnastics as adults. Participation in track and field at age 14 was related to increased participation in running and ball games at age 31 in both genders. Males’ participation in combat sports at age 14 was associated with frequent participation in running, aerobics or gymnastics, and gym training as adults. Females’ participation in gymnastics at age 14 was associated with frequent participation in aerobics or gymnastics at age 31 (Table 4).
      Table 4Participation in types of physical activity at age 31 years, according to participation in types of sports at age 14 years
      SportnActivities at age 31 (%)
      WalkingCyclingCross-country skiingRunningSwimmingBall gamesAerobics/gymnasticsGym trainingOutdoor activities
      Males
      Ice hockey94647.645.318.317.97.133.74.517.0
      Soccer52549.947.718.721.77.240.47.218.539.8
      Volleyball22052.740.520.925.57.337.36.421.448.6
      Other ball games27845.343.214.420.95.839.96.821.935.5
      Cross-country skiing64052.041.128.325.86.423.87.017.541.1
      Running28455.343.028.527.19.522.59.218.338.0
      Orienteering3560.048.631.448.62.922.917.117.142.9
      Track and field22152.045.222.228.59.538.58.119.038.0
      Combat sports6648.553.015.225.86.130.315.228.831.8
      All248848.643.018.519.37.026.95.716.441.0
      Females
      Running71373.455.518.012.810.510.129.910.944.3
      Cycling23470.957.714.510.39.49.829.58.541.9
      Orienteering2475.066.720.825.04.28.325.016.737.5
      Track and field18273.157.720.917.612.113.733.515.938.5
      Gymnastics35170.954.413.111.79.77.737.313.141.0
      Riding13173.355.713.710.711.57.635.18.440.5
      All279870.156.215.310.69.38.329.210.541.9

      Social determinants of participation in adolescent sports

      The percentage of adolescents who were members of a sports club was very high in orienteering, combat sports, and track and field (64% to 86%), and relatively high in various ball games (44% to 58%) (Table 5). The percentage of adolescents with the highest grades in school sports (9 or 10) was the greatest among participants in track and field, basketball, and orienteering (>50%). Participants in downhill skiing, dancing, orienteering, and riding more commonly came from families of the highest social class (I), and participants in strength sports, walking, cycling, and soccer more commonly came from families of low social class (IV). Urban residence was related to frequent participation in combat sports, riding, downhill skiing, and dancing; in contrast, rural residence was related to frequent participation in volleyball, cross-country skiing, and running in adolescence.
      Table 5Background characteristics of males and females participating in different sports at age 14 years
      SportnMember in a sports club (%)Highest grades (9–10) in sports at school (%)Distribution (%) by social class of familyUrban place of residence (%)
      I+IIIIIIVFarmer
      Ball games
      Ice hockey139444323136211240
      Soccer85050382638251147
      Volleyball66258443336221028
      Basketball3775253373519848
      Other ball games6825342413416952
      Endurance type of sports
      Cross-country skiing199838342731212029
      Running145634342832221833
      Swimming85230243534211150
      Cycling5611752633251640
      Walking31214112232261937
      Orienteering868652473214751
      Other individual sports
      Skating120724213036211338
      Track and field58264603235191436
      Gymnastics56651443635181040
      Downhill skiing297512964277158
      Riding214532547408463
      Dancing1754739533112557
      Combat sports1408434393620665
      Strength training sports11636232832281137
      Other less common sports1715634413416952
      All779436293035221342

      Discussion

      The present finding about the association between the adolescent and adult level of physical activity corresponds to results obtained in previous longitudinal studies.
      • Engström L.-M.
      The process of socialization into keep-fit activities.
      ,
      • Telama R.
      • Leskinen E.
      • Yang X.
      Stability of habitual physical activity and sport participation a longitudinal tracking study.
      ,
      • Telama R.
      • Yang X.
      • Laakso L.
      • Viikari J.
      Physical activity in childhood and adolescence as predictor of physical activity in young adulthood.
      ,
      • Vanreusel B.
      • Renson R.
      • Beunen G.
      • et al.
      A longitudinal study of youth sport participation and adherence to sport in adulthood.
      ,
      • Yang X.
      • Telama R.
      • Leino M.
      • Viikari J.
      Factors explaining the physical activity of young adults the importance of early socialization.
      In the present study, participation in sports at least once a week in adolescent females and twice a week in males was associated with high levels of physical activity in later life. This level of adolescent physical activity could be interpreted as the minimal dose with respect to enhancement of adult physical activity.
      This study provides new information about the continuity of various types of sports from adolescence into adulthood. Extensive data based on the general population offers a unique opportunity to study the association between a wide range of adolescent sports and adult physical activity. In males, adolescent participation in ice hockey, soccer, volleyball, cross-country skiing, running, orienteering, track and field, and combat sports was associated with a high or very high level of adult activity. In females, the same applied to adolescent participation in running, orienteering, cycling, track and field, gymnastics, and riding. Participation in other sports (e.g., skating, swimming, walking, downhill skiing, dancing, and strength training) in adolescence was not related to a high level of activity in adulthood.
      Sallis et al.
      • Sallis J.F.
      • Zakarian J.M.
      • Hovell M.F.
      • Hofstetter C.R.
      Ethnic, socioeconomic, and sex differences in physical activity among adolescents.
      and Powell et al.
      • Powell K.E.
      • Dysinger W.
      Childhood participation in organized school sports and physical education as precursors of adult physical activity.
      have suggested that physical activities that can be performed without a team may carry over to adulthood, but our results do not support this tentative idea. Several individual sports, but also most of the ball games in males, showed a strong carry-over value from adolescence into adulthood. The percentage of males participating in ball games at age 31 was relatively high at 27%, although it may be more difficult for a large number of adult friends to get together for such an activity compared to adolescents. Personality traits may also guide one’s selection between individual or team sports. It is possible that those who prefer team sports in adolescence feel the same way in adulthood.
      Adolescent participation in relatively intensive endurance sports, such as skiing, running, and orienteering, was associated with a high level of total activity and participation in endurance sports in adulthood. One reason for the high carry-over effect into adulthood may be the ease with which these sports can be performed on one’s own time. Participation is not dependent on companions or facilities. Another reason may be the self-selection of the most physiologically talented individuals into such endurance sports. Exercising is easy for such individuals both in adolescence and in adulthood. Also Telama et al.
      • Telama R.
      • Yang X.
      • Laakso L.
      • Viikari J.
      Physical activity in childhood and adolescence as predictor of physical activity in young adulthood.
      suggested that the high intensity of adolescent physical activity, defined as sweating and breath-taking, was one of the best predictors of adult activity.
      Participation in organized sports and a high grade in school sports have been reported to be major determinants of continued participation.
      • Telama R.
      • Yang X.
      • Laakso L.
      • Viikari J.
      Physical activity in childhood and adolescence as predictor of physical activity in young adulthood.
      In the present study, the participants in those adolescent sports, which carried over into the adult years, were commonly characterized by high grades in school sports and membership in a sports club. A high grade in school sports may reflect a well-developed and wide range of skills, as well as a positive attitude toward sports. In addition, membership in a sports club may reflect a more organized way of sports participation.
      Furthermore, many sports require special motor and coordination skills that are evident in early childhood and may direct the child’s personal selection of the sport. Involvement in ball games and track and field, for instance, may further enhance adolescents’ sports skills and increase the probability that these skills will be used later in life. This underlines the importance of early exposure to high-quality and diversified physical activity experiences.
      Vanreusel et al.
      • Vanreusel B.
      • Renson R.
      • Beunen G.
      • et al.
      A longitudinal study of youth sport participation and adherence to sport in adulthood.
      reported that the dropout rate from recreational sports was lower and appeared at later ages, compared to competitive sports career defined as participation in competitions during each observed year from age 13 to 35 years. However, this longitudinal study of 235 males failed to provide information about how a recreational style continued after a competitive career in specific sports. In the current study, a continuation of more intensive and organized adolescent sports into adulthood appeared to be more commonplace. An interesting finding in the present study was that participation in walking and skating, and in males also in cycling and strength training, was not associated with a high level of activity in adulthood. Maybe those adolescents who participated in cycling and walking at age 14 did not participate in any other particular sport but simply wanted to register all activities on the questionnaire.
      Socioeconomic status of the family appeared be related to participation in adolescent sports. Sallis et al.
      • Sallis J.F.
      • Zakarian J.M.
      • Hovell M.F.
      • Hofstetter C.R.
      Ethnic, socioeconomic, and sex differences in physical activity among adolescents.
      contended that socioeconomic status was not a major factor in the selection of out-of-school activities and sports by adolescents. However, our results suggest an association between father’s occupation and type of sport. Low social class may weaken parents’ ability to transport children to organized sports, as well as to pay the fees and equipment required for the young person to participate.
      Place of residence was also associated with participation in type of sports in adolescence. In rural areas, outdoor sports were more popular. In urban areas, people frequently participated in sports demanding special facilities and organized guidance, such as riding, combat sports, and dancing in adolescence. Those who live in an urban environment have more opportunities to participate in various organized activities and to utilize sports facilities compared to their rural counterparts.
      Our findings in this group of Finnish subjects cannot be generalized directly to other countries with different geographic and sociopolitical situations. The society and also the types of sports among adolescents have changed considerably since 1980, and further information is required to evaluate the patterns and social determinants of adolescent physical activity today.

      Conclusion

      Participation in sports at least once a week in females and twice a week in males was associated with a high level of physical activity in adulthood. Adolescent participation in rather intensive endurance sports, such as cross-country skiing, running, and orienteering, and in some sports that demand and develop diversified skills at sports, such as track and field and ball games in males, seemed to be most beneficial with respect to the enhancement of adult physical activity. However, the differences among various types of adolescent sports were only modest.
      Positive experiences and a wide range of sports skills acquired in childhood may be the best preparation for lifelong physical activity. This scenario assists in the continuity of sports participation into adulthood and the likelihood of adapting new modes of physical activity as an adult. The opportunities to participate in a wide range of activities in adolescence may maximize the probability that one of the activities suits the needs and skill level of the young person and the desire to continue participation into adulthood.

      Acknowledgements

      This study was funded by the Ministry of Education, the Academy of Finland, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, and the Oulu University Hospital.

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