What an incredible two weeks of sport. The Games have had everything: passion, excitement, enthusiasm and more success than anyone could have imagined. All the world’s top athletes competed in London and Team GB won over 50 medals, finishing an unbelievable 3rd in the medal rankings; an amazing achievement!
However, before we all get carried away with celebration and festivity, a small word of caution: in my opinion, for the Games to really be judged a national success, we must deliver on our promise to create a sustainable, long term health legacy and encourage the nation to get more active, not just in the next few months but for years to come. This is not just important for us to successfully nurture another generation of gold medallists but critical for the country’s health and wellbeing.
The Responsibility Deal Physical Activity Network will have an important role to play in this – by facilitating partnerships between businesses, the third sector and the public sector to harness the enthusiasm generated by the Games.
In all my years promoting physical activity, we have never had such a good opportunity to embrace sport and embed an active lifestyle into the DNA of the nation. Since the Games began, Olympic fever has spread into swimming pools, badminton courts and parks up and down the country. It’s been incredible. Yet history suggests that creating a lasting legacy will require real focus: the evidence shows that no host has ever been able to achieve any kind of real legacy.
We can’t let this happen. With an ageing population, concerns about the levels of physical activity within schools, and rising levels of obesity and type-2 diabetes the health consequences are literally too dire. A recent Lancet study found that physical inactivity now causes as many deaths across the world as smoking; accounting for 1 in 10 deaths globally from diseases such as heart disease and cancer. It named Britain as the third most inactive country in Europe, with 63% of adults not meeting minimum levels of physical activity. It called the situation an inactivity ‘pandemic’ that is responsible for the death of millions of people every year that could have been prevented.
It is estimated that there are currently 2.9 million people with diabetes in the UK. By 2025 this will reach 5 million people; the equivalent of more than 400 people developing the disease every day, over 17 every hour and around 3 people every 10 minutes. A total of 61.3% of adults are either overweight or obese and even more worryingly 33.3% of all 10–11-year-olds. According to the Chief Medical Officer, physical activity can reduce the prevalence of chronic conditions such as type-2 diabetes, obesity and stroke by between 30-40%.
A societal problem needs to be tackled through a societal approach. This excludes nobody. We must all play our part. There is a role for both athletes and spectators; head teachers and parents; employees and employers; doctors and patients; students and seniors; central and local government. The cost of obesity is expected to reach an exorbitant £50bn per year by 2050. If we want our children to have an NHS free at the point of use then we need to change our lifestyles and as a nation become more active.
The provision of physical activity in schools is currently in the spotlight, with figures showing that whilst 9.8% of our children enter primary school as obese, twice as many (18.7%) leave primary schools as obese. Initiatives that provide “sport volunteers” to local schools must be rolled out nationwide. Exercise is by far the most cost-effective and beneficial medicine that exists. It has no side-effects and usually encourages healthier all-round behaviour. Over 835,000 people visit their local GP practice every day – our GPs have a vital role in encouraging their patients to incorporate activity into their daily lives. Physical activity programmes designed around one-on-one motivational support and counselling have proven successful – they must be commissioned more broadly. Through the Responsibility Deal there are some great examples of business supporting the promotion of physical activity, such as Asda delivering a series of summer events for families aimed at encouraging physical activity within deprived communities – these have to be expanded.
For these Olympic and Paralympic Games to be deemed a real success, we must deliver on our commitment to achieve a real health legacy. Our athletes may have inspired us to get out and exercise today, but we must remain active tomorrow and the day after. This goes beyond a two-week sporting showcase. It is a national crisis. One that I really hope we can overcome.