The Olympics, sport, health and you

The countdown to The Games is over and it seems that hosting the Olympics has messed with the British ‘can’t do’, ‘doesn’t matter if you don’t win as long as you do your best,’ attitude. We’re all potential Olympians now. The NHS Live well website asks the surprising question ‘Which Olympian are you like?‘ I toyed with saying I could give Usain Bolt a run for his money, but decided to take their sporting aptitude test to see which Olympic sport I’m best suited to. Luckily, this didn’t involve anything more strenuous than running my fingers lightly over the keyboard and within minutes I’d been told I was well suited to being a gymnast. Age, shape and body mass index absolutely no obstacle. Oh good! While I wait for my gymnastic career to take off, I’ll just keep the day job ticking over and will start by telling you about a recent report in The Lancet on whether sport and exercise specifically contribute to the health of nations.

Here are the key messages:

  • Regular physical activity, even in small doses, confers substantial health benefits
  • Regular participation in sports is likely to benefit health; large cohort studies suggest participation in sport at least once a week is associated with a 20-40% reduction in death from all causes compared with non-particpation
  • It is impossible to estimate accurately the health benefit attributable to sport at  a population level due to lack of data on participation in sport by total minutes per week
  • Risk of injury varies widely between sports; randomised trials have shown that targeted warm-up or neuromuscular training programmes can reduce the incidence of some common sports injuries
  • Doctors and other health providers should measure the exercise vital sign (a score based on the patient’s report of how many minutes of physical activity they undertake each day) in every consultation with every patient
  • Systematic review evidence supports the use of brief interventions by family doctors to increase physical activity

Wouldn’t it be fun if hosting The Games, instead of making us more Olympian, made the Olympics more British? Just imagine the bewilderment on the podium when an athlete who thought she’d lost stepped up to take the ‘best cheering for the team’ medal or the ‘being a good sport’ certificate. Think I’ll go and put my Team GB top on now; it won’t turn me into an Olympian but it will make me look like one, if you half close your eyelids, and it’s quite dark…


Khan KM, Thompson AM, Blair SN, Sallis JF, Powell KE, Bull FC, Bauman AE. Sport and exercise as contributors to the health of nations. The Lancet Volume 380, Issue 9836, Pages 59 – 64, 7 July 2012.

NHS Live well website. Which Olympian are you like?

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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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