Olympic and Paralympic legacy huge opportunity to improve UK’s shocking physical activity levels, say leading Sport Medicine doctors

Leading Sport and Exercise Medicine doctors are highlighting the ‘urgent need’ for the Olympic and Paralympic legacy to help increase the UK’s physical activity levels. Changing culture by making exercise part of day to day life is ‘of huge importance to tackling the pandemic of physical inactivity’, they say.

While elite athletes including Ellie Simmonds and David Weir demonstrate that disability should be no barrier to sport participation, studies show that only 9.1% of those with long standing illness or disability participate to minimum recommended levels of activity a week. Just 39% of non-disabled men and 29% of women obtain the recommended levels of exercise.

Dr Andrew Murray, an ultra-marathon runner (who is also Physical Activity Champion for the Scottish Government) has called for increased opportunities for those with disabilities to participate in sport and exercise. He said “19% of the British population have a limiting long term disability, and there is overwhelming evidence that exercise leads to a hugely improved quality of life, and better health and function.”

He added; “Exercise has huge benefits to disabled and able-bodied people alike. The recommendations to achieve such benefits (150 minutes per week for adults or 60 minutes a day for children and young people) are achievable. Any form of exercise counts, so we hope the population will be inspired, find an enjoyable way of getting active, and reap the rewards. Our Chief Medical Officers and Ministers have also consistently emphasised the importance of regular physical activity – after all, inactivity kills more people than obesity or alcohol excess.”

Studies published this summer in medical journal The Lancet revealed that physical inactivity is now killing as many globally as smoking, with the UK named as one of the laziest countries in Europe. Billed a ‘global pandemic’, inactivity is increasingly seen as a key indicator of mortality, whereas exercise is effective in the primary prevention of chronic disease and prevention of early death.

“The UK’s levels of inactivity – in both disabled and able-bodied people – are extremely worrying” says exercise medicine expert and Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine Fellow Dr Richard Weiler “Our athletes were world-class at London 2012. Yet for the majority of the population, physical

inactivity is the norm, and its ill effects cost a staggering £8.3 billion per annum. The Olympic and Paralympic Games have inspired many; now they have the ability to

inspire action in addressing one of the most pressing public health challenges of our time.”

The £8.3 billion figure includes the economic burden on the NHS in treating long-term conditions that could have been prevented through increased physical activity. It also takes into account the costs of lost productivity in sickness to the economy and the premature death of those of working age.

Dr Weiler continued “Everybody has to navigate barriers to regular physical activity, whether it’s accessibility, money, local opportunities, the environment, culture, work and time. The average person in the UK watches 3-4 hours television every day, yet just 30 minutes spent off the sofa, doing moderate exercise instead, can dramatically improve health and quality of life. Hopefully the inspiration of the Olympics and Paralympics will make more people across society think about what they can also achieve by moving more and getting fitter.”

Government targets seek to ensure that 70% of the population in England and Wales will be ‘reasonably active’ by 2020. The Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine, of which both Dr Murray and Dr Weiler are Fellows, believe that the use of Sport and Exercise Medicine doctors in the NHS – specialist doctors who can help with exercise prescription and uptake – can readily help achieve this target.