London Olympics are unlikely to have beneficial public health legacy, peers hear

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 15 June 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e4202
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. 1London

The London 2012 Olympic Games may not leave a clear and lasting legacy of improved public health, experts have said.

The government, however, is determined to develop a successful sports and exercise medicine legacy from the games, peers on the House of Lords science and technology committee have been told.

Peers on the committee heard from several witnesses at an evidence session on 12 June as part of a short inquiry into sports and exercise science medicine, which is looking at how the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games can be used to improve understanding of the benefits that exercise can provide for public health.

Questions were asked about the government’s decision, announced in January,1 2 to put £30m (€37m; $47m) into establishing a national sports and exercise medicine centre of excellence to be based at three locations in England. The centre’s aim is to promote sports and exercise, treat injuries caused by exercise and conditions caused by a lack of exercise, and to share research findings and best practice with the entire NHS.

Peers wanted to know how lessons learnt from the study of elite athletes could be applied to improve the health of the general population and whether there was enough evidence to support a policy for clinicians to routinely recommend exercise to patients.

Steve Bloom, head of the division for diabetes, endocrinology, and metabolism at Imperial College London and chairman of its academic section of investigative medicine, told the committee, “The evidence that exercise prolongs life and improves functioning in older age is very strong indeed. The type of exercise that is involved, however, is not competitive.

“The publicity surrounding the [Olympic] Games does encourage people to take exercise, but it’s a psychological effect. The only practical impact is that they remain sitting in front of a flat screen [television] for many weeks. The connection between the two is very difficult to establish.”

A renewed focus on encouraging exercise was a sensible decision, said Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, who also gave evidence.

“We recognise the opportunity to use the games to inspire people in sports and physical exercise,” she said.

“I think there is a sound evidence base for the good that physical activity can do. We know from epidemiology data that physical activity plays an important role in the maintenance of health and in handling chronic disease and trying to minimise the symptoms of chronic disease and delay its advancement.”

More could be done, she added, to prove the economic argument of investing in sports and exercise medicine. “We see the national centre as playing a key role in helping to develop the evidence base and as a transmission agent to getting the evidence into practice.”

Replying to the peers’ question on what lessons could be learnt from scrutinising elite athletes and how much of that knowledge could be transferred to help improve general health, Davies said, “I confess I am not convinced there is vast transferability. We do learn physiology and nutritional issues from them that we can take back to everyday life, but my interest as chief medical officer is how do we prevent disease that starts in childhood, prevent sedentary behaviour and obesity, and how do we handle disease.”

Mike Farrar, chief executive of the NHS Confederation and the government’s physical activity champion, also giving evidence, said, “There is a hypothesis to be tested about the extent to which you can look at the high tech treatment for sporting injuries for elite athletes and understand how we convert that knowledge down.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e4202


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