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For the 22nd consecutive year, more high school students are playing sports, according to the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey released last week by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

More than 7.6 million students played sports during the 2010-2011 school year, an increase of nearly 40,000 students compared to 2009-2010. The organization estimates that 55.5 percent of all high school students play a sport.

Though sports programs continue to grow, the rate has slowed. Over the past decade, sports participation has increased by roughly 100,000 students per year; the 40,000 increase over the past year is the smallest since the late 1980s.

NFHS director Bob Gardner attributes the slower growth to budget demands at many schools. "While the overall increase was not as much as we've seen in the past few years, we are definitely encouraged with these totals given the financial challenges facing our nation's high schools," he said in a statement.

The most common sport, according to the survey, is Basketball: 18,150 schools have a boys basketball team and 17,767 schools have a girls basketball team. Football has the most participants among all high school sports, with more than 1.1 million students playing at 14,000 schools.

[Read an opinion of Title IX's possible effect on male sports.]

The fastest growing sport is girls Lacrosse, where participation increased by 6,155 students between 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, a 9 percent jump. Girls made up 41 percent of all student athletes, a 5 percent increase from 1991.

"It's amazing that participation has increased for 22 consecutive years. Nowadays, there are so many diversions and distractions for students," says John Gillis, associate director of publications and communications at NFHS. "I think sports are so popular because they give students the opportunity to be a part of something. There's camaraderie on these teams."

Although playing sports takes a large time commitment, studies have shown that student athletes perform better in school than students who don't participate in sports. A 2007 survey of high schools in Minnesota found that student athletes had a mean grade point average of 2.84, while nonstudent athletes had a mean GPA of 2.68.

In the mid-'90s, theNorth Carolina High School Athletic Association studied the effects of athletics on academics over a three-year period. Athletes had a GPA nearly a full point higher than nonathletes, were absent fewer days per school year, and had a dropout rate of 0.7 percent compared to 8.98 percent for nonathletes.

Additionally, a 2007 study by Brigham Young University found that females who played a sport in high school were 41 percent more likely to graduate from college than those who did not play sports in high school.

NFHS's Gillis says students feel a loyalty to their school when they play sports. "You're wearing the jersey and representing the school," he says. "You learn life lessons like teamwork and leadership. Those lessons benefit you as you become an adult."

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The popularity of sports is often gender-based with elementary school age students. For boys, football and basketball are the dominant sports in that order. For girls, soccer and softball are the two most popular.

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