Obesity levels and health issues are ongoing problems in the United Kingdom today. Important issues relating to the funding of the Olympics and the Paralympics and the legacy this event will have on the nation were discussed in the Commons last week. As Parliamentary Fellow for Sport England I believe one of the most important aspects we need to concentrate on is increased participation in sport nation-wide as a means by which we can tackle the serious public health issue of obesity and other health issues. Such a concept is nothing new. However, the Olympic and Paralympic games are a platform from which we can inspire a generation and encourage increased participation in sport, which goes hand in hand in the fight against obesity and other health issues.
Lack of sport and exercise participation can have a detrimental impact on people’s lives. Studies have shown physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality, it accounts for 6% of all deaths globally, and being overweight accounts for 5%. It is important we raise awareness of this issue and implement action to get the population active through national and local initiatives. The benefits of regular participation in sport are wide-ranging. Recent Sport England research outlined that on average, the health gains of a 30-49 year old who plays football are valued at £27,600 over their lifetime. Furthermore, if sport participation increased by a million people weekly, the tax payer would save £22.5bn in health and associated costs.
It is also proved that increased participation in sport has a positive impact on an individual’s physical and mental well-being. The physical benefits, in terms of helping to prevent illness and disease are well documented – including reducing the risk of heart disease, strokes, type II diabetes and different forms of cancer, in addition to playing an essential role in tackling obesity. However, the benefits to a person’s mental well-being are less publicised, but nonetheless incredibly important. Participation can help reduce anxiety and depression, the increased social contact that coincides with most sports activities aids with combating loneliness and overall physical activity increases people’s confidence and self-esteem.
The benefits of sport and exercise can also be targeted to specific groups, such as pregnant women, and it is the case that those who engaging in physical activity during pregnancy are more likely to have healthy birth weight babies, which reduces a child’s risk of obesity later in life. Those with physical disabilities including injured service personnel can help improve their health and quality of life via sport, and be given opportunities to become more mobile.
With the Health and Social Care Bill making its way through Parliament, I would like to see health professionals use opportunities like localised budgets to play a greater role in enabling more people to get, and stay, fit and healthy through sport. In Birmingham, for example, BeActive Plus is a GP referral scheme for patients with specific medical conditions that can benefit from structured exercise programmes. The scheme involves a GP or health professional referring a patient to see a Health & Fitness Advisor at a city council leisure facility to help improve any long term conditions they have, which may include diabetes, coronary heart disease and those recovering from a stroke.
A key area we should look to increase sporting participation is in the younger generation; both in schools and externally. When I was younger, sport, as it should be for all children, was an important aspect of my life. Playing cricket for my school and local team, Hempstead Colts, led me to play for Medway and Kent Schools which enabled me to build long lasting friendships and instilled a passion for exercise. Today I enjoy playing cricket and my participation in sport at a young age encouraged me to continue sport and exercise into adulthood. I regularly participate in charity half-marathons and get up first thing in the morning to go for a run before catching the train to London for work.
Nationally and locally, we need to build on the fantastic community sports projects, including those already in place and those being developed as part of the Olympic legacy, through implementing local partnerships and national initiatives. Nationally, Sport England projects such as Sportivate, announced in April 2011, are invaluable in generating increased participation. Sportivate targets 14-25 year olds, who currently don’t participate in sport in their spare time, and provides them with an opportunity to try new activities. The aim of the £32 million investment by Sport England is to get 300,000 more children and young adults regularly participating nationwide. Sportivate is already up and running in Kent – and it’s great that hundreds of young people have already taken part to make sport a lifelong habit and that sport is being used to engage youths who are disengaged or disinterested in education.
Alongside these national initiatives, locally we need to see more community partnerships creating awareness and opportunities for people. For example, the Blackburn with Darwen Local Authority in partnership with the Primary Care Trust and local leisure centres ran a marketing campaign, "re:fresh", which highlighted the dangers of inactivity to health, while simultaneously providing free, social sessions of sport and physical activity. This initiative saw a 7% increase in people playing sport and active recreation in four years.
As we the Olympic loom it is time for us to take steps to combat this continuing problem of obesity and health risks in our country. Finland, Sweden and Denmark have all demonstrated how a long term commitment to a co-ordinated public policy intervention can increase and sustain high levels of participation and physical activity in sport. We should not be consigning a generation to health-associated problems due to lack of participation in sport. We need to raise awareness of the dangers of inactivity, in addition to utilising and developing national and local initiatives. We should aim to build on the brilliant opportunities that the Olympic legacy will create – not only in inspiring the nation, but providing the infrastructure and means to increase sports participation nationwide and tackle the serious public health issues of obesity and health inequalities.