Sport and Exercise Medicine doctors aim to get us moving

Why exercise? One very good reason, according to a new report from the Department of Health, is that regular exercisers are 30-50% less likely to be affected by conditions such as stroke, cancer, ischaemic heart disease, obesity and diabetes, dementia and depression. Yet persuading people who are sedentary, unfit or unwell to change their behaviour in relation to exercise is a massive challenge and we are an incredibly sedentary nation. According to their own assessment of how much exercise they do, only 39% of men and 29% of women in the UK meet minimum physical activity recommendations. If this is measured objectively, the figure drops to around 5%.

One way the NHS aims to tackle this is through the establishment of a new medical speciality, Sport and Exercise Medicine (SEM), which was one of the London 2012 Games bid commitments, and and SEM services are now available from doctors trained to deliver them.

The report, ‘Sport and Exercise Medicine – A Fresh Approach’ (PDF), introduces the speciality to NHS commissioners. It emphasises the importance of SEM in chronic disease prevention and management, the prescription of exercise to patients, the diagnosis and management of musculoskeletal injury and the education and training of allied professionals in these skills.

It makes five broad points:

  • Physical activity is a proven way of preventing expensive and debilitating diseases
  • People suffering from chronic diseases can significantly improve their recovery and avoid developing other conditions if they exercise as part of their treatment
  • Musculoskeletal injuries cost the NHS huge amounts in unnecessary GP and orthopaedic time. They cause 50% of all sickness absence in the NHS alone – 5 million days each year
  • It can be challenging to get people to exercise, particularly if they are unfit or ill. As a result, the NHS is missing the substantial health and financial benefits that exercise could bring in both prevention and treatment
  • The specialty of Sport and Exercise Medicine (SEM) can help

SEM doctors, trained in education, physical activity and chronic disease, exercise physiology, public health, general practice and musculoskeletal medicine can work in a variety of ways, in primary care settings such as GP clinics, in workplaces and hospitals. It’s also intended that SEM doctors will work with the health and fitness industry, something which the report admits has not worked well in the past. It is expected that different localities will choose to implement SEM services in variable ways and over differing timescales according to local needs.

If you’re wondering whether you’re doing enough exercise, you could take the online fitness test on the NHS Choices website. Be honest now!


Importance of sport and exercise medicine outlined in new guide: ‘Sport and Exercise Medicine – A Fresh Approach’ (PDF). Department of Health 28 May 2012.

NHS Choices Fitness Self-Assessment



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Sarah Chapman

My name is Sarah Chapman. I have worked on systematic reviews and other types of research in many areas of health for the past 17 years, for the Cochrane Collaboration and for several UK higher education institutions including the University of Oxford and the Royal College of Nursing Institute. I also have a background in nursing and in the study of the History of Medicine.

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