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Government risks missing the opportunity provided by the Olympics to improve the nation's health

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has, today, published its report on sport and exercise science and medicine and say that more must be done to make use of exercise based treatments. During their inquiry, they heard compelling evidence that physical activity can be used as part of treatment for a wide range of chronic diseases.

The report states that there is a lack of awareness and appropriate training for health professionals of the benefits of exercise based treatments. A recent survey of 48 London GP practices found that none were aware of the latest Physical Activity Guidelines. This is a missed opportunity as the city prepares to host the Olympic Games. The Committee call 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.

The Committee express disappointment at the lack of joined-up thinking in Government on the Olympic health legacy. Sports Minister Hugh Robertson told the Committee that he was interested only in increasing participation in sport, not using sport to improve the nation's health. The report states it is “remarkable” that DCMS is not concerned with the health benefits of sport and calls for the Government to deliver “a consistent approach to health, physical activity and sport”.

The Committee also express concern that the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine (NCSEM), set up as part of Olympic legacy, may not be sustainable. The funding for NCSEM from government is a one-off £30m capital investment with no satisfactory strategy beyond that. The report recommends that the Centre provide leadership in the sport and exercise science and medicine fields.

The Committee also considered the quality of sport and exercise science used to improve athletic performance. They argue that that approaches taken to improving the performance of elite athletes are not consistently based on strong biomedical science, nor do they seem to be systematically informed by the latest developments in science. The report states that, for example, there is little evidence that popular techniques such as ice baths to aid recovery offer real performance benefits. The Committee call for increased “two-way flow” between observational studies of elite athletes and rigorous controlled studies with non-elite athletes. The Committee conclude that findings from high quality sports science could both help improve the performance of elite athletes and could provide the basis for translational research to benefits for the wider public.

Commenting, Lord Krebs, Chairman of the Lords Science and Technology Committee, said:

“The London Olympics present a unique opportunity to improve public health and improve understanding of the benefits of physical activity both by the public and health care professionals. Our concern is that this opportunity could be lost. We find it extremely disappointing that so few London GPs are even aware of the Chief Medical Officers' Physical Activity Guidelines.

“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. We are particularly concerned that the Sports Minister did not accept any responsibility to use sport to improve public health, and so we are not convinced that the Olympic legacy will, as promised, help the nation be “healthier, happier and more active”. The Government must take a joined-up approach to sport, physical activity and health to ensure the Olympics deliver a lasting health legacy.”

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