Olympics health legacy: will London 2012 deliver on its promises?

As all around me people are still celebrating Britain’s amazing feat at the Olympics and I can definitely spot more joggers than usual whilst walking my dog. I keep wondering if unlike New Year resolutions, the current wave of excitement for all things sporty will last beyond a month?

London’s bid to host the Olympic games in 2012 was won with a promise to increase public participation in sport and to create a “healthier, happier, more active nation”. Yet, a newly published report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee entitled “Sport and exercise science and medicine: building on the Olympic legacy to improve the nation’s health” is quite critical of the “apparent lack of joined-up thinking in government about the Olympic health legacy”. Lord Krebs, the chairman of the committee rightly points out that “the government is failing to act in a consistent way to ensure that the Olympics help us tackle one of our greatest health threats: sedentary lifestyles”.

Whilst the government might have the will to create a healthier nation, it has not put in the necessary resources to achieve this. Britain’s sports infrastructure is old, with lack of funding an ongoing issue that is only going to be aggravated by cuts to local authority budgets. Also, the steep reduction made to the £162m funding of school sport partnerships in 2010 was not exactly conducive to creating a lasting sporting legacy nor helping to capitalise on the post-Olympic rush of enthusiasm.

This lack of financial commitment might just turn out to be false economy. Though as the cost of dealing with a public health crisis and the pressure it will place on an already overstretched NHS will far outweigh the investment required to increase physical activity levels.

Last month a study published in The Lancet named Britain as the third most inactive country in Europe, with 63% of adults not meeting minimum levels of physical activity. Bearing in mind that physical inactivity is, according to the study, responsible for 6-10% of cases of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancer globally – and 9% of premature deaths, it is time to take action.

So what can be done to encourage us to lead more active lifestyles? Apart from the obvious financial investment that local and central government needs to make, we as a society all have a part to play. Athletes can inspire us, teachers and parents have a pivotal role in encouraging children to take up sports, employers should enable employees to become more active by, for example providing showers and promoting active commuting, whilst GPs have a duty in encouraging their patients to incorporate activity into their daily lives.

This is an area that needs improvement as highlighted by the Lords Committee report, which states that there is a lack of awareness and appropriate training for health professionals of the benefits of exercise based treatments. The Committee calls on the NHS to consider adding physical activity to the Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF), which rewards GPs for how well they care for patients. They recommend that NICE and the NHS update chronic disease guidelines with detailed information about exercise, and evaluate the best way to deliver exercise treatments through the NHS.

Old habits die hard and getting the British nation off its couch is not going to be an easy task. We can only hope that the sporting fever, ignited by the Olympic flame is here to last. For my part if all my new sporting resolutions fail, I shall at least stick to the minimum recommended level of physical activity, with a daily dog walk!

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