Sport. It’s our national obsession. Whether it’s football, rugby, tennis, athletics or cycling, major sporting events bring us together. Throughout the country, shops are deserted and roads empty of all but pizza delivery mopeds when the action begins. Men, women and children hunker down on their sofas – drink in one hand, remote in the other – and bellow their support (or otherwise) at the greatest athletes on the face of the earth.
This is all truly joyous, except for one thing: we don’t participate in sport or physical activity with the same enthusiasm with which we spectate. Indeed, Sport England’s most recent Active Lives report found that only 35% of us had taken part in sport on at least two occasions in the past 28 days. This finding goes a long way to explaining why lots of sportswear never actually reaches a playing field or a sports hall. It seems that while we want to watch the action, we don’t seem to want to join in.
Some of this is inherent in the term “elite sport”. Sir Mo Farah doesn’t just run a 5k or a 10k fast; he runs it faster than anyone else on the planet. Usain Bolt runs faster than any human has ever run, full stop. That can make your personal best at parkrun feel a bit inconsequential! Faced with such astounding feats of endurance, skill and determination, it’s tempting to wonder why you should bother. If you can’t bend it like Beckham, is there any point even trying to bend it at all?
Here at Public Health England, we tend to worry about this sort of thing. Physical inactivity is very bad for our health. Indeed, even if we do manage the 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week recommended by the Chief Medical Officer (which many of us don’t), a sedentary lifestyle (which most of us have) still puts us at risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
“We don’t participate in sport or physical activity with the same enthusiasm with which we spectate”
Recently, PHE’s analysis of the Global Burden of Disease study found that physical inactivity, when accompanied by its frequent bedfellows of poor diet and high body mass index, puts people at the same risk of disease as smoking. Predictably, this has prompted a raft of “Sitting is the New Smoking!” headlines, but the reality remains that treating illnesses caused by sedentary lifestyles costs the NHS over £1 billion per year.
Whoever you are, however sporty you are, you could probably do with being a bit more active. We are particularly interested in adults aged 40-60: the cohort which is at imminent risk of developing major, life- limiting (and often irreversible) conditions – such as type two diabetes and heart disease – but still have time to make changes that can radically improve their chances of a long and fulfilling life.
At PHE, we have already successfully engaged over one million middle aged adults via our One You programme – providing tips and tools, such as our Couch to 5k app, to help people get off the sofa. But physical activity doesn’t just protect our bodies from illness, it protects our minds too. For adults, 30 minutes of (at least) moderate intensity physical activity on at least five days a week can help to prevent and manage over 20 chronic conditions, including stress, depression and cognitive decline. It also improves sleep, even for those of us worrying about the prospects of our favourite team!
That’s not the only good news. Results show that physical activity in the UK is gradually on the rise. Sport England reports that over 57% of adults manage 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week, with walking, swimming, cycling and dance all contributing to a more positive national picture.
“Imagine brands and sports organisations putting health and participation – and not just tickets, products and Tv subscriptions – at the heart of their advertising”
We’ve also witnessed the incredible impact of sporting role models. These sporting heroes hold the key to getting people off the sofa and onto the pitch, or into the pool. For example, Olympic stars Tom Daley and Rebecca Adlington have supported our Change4Life programme to encourage school children to enjoy swimming, while Premier League football clubs have helped us encourage smokers to quit by supporting our annual Stoptober campaign. The results have been impressive – both in terms of media interest and (not coincidentally) public participation.
These icons are loved for what they’ve achieved and people listen to what they have to say. But together we could be doing so much more! Sports clubs and organisations run a wide variety of schemes that encourage people to take part in their respective sports and support local community activity. But the challenge is not just using sport’s significant influence to get people playing more of it, it’s for the country to encourage people to build more physical activity into their everyday lives.
This could be as simple as leaving the car at home when the journey is under a mile, cycling to work instead of getting the bus, or taking the stairs instead of the lift. And we need to sit less! Simple steps can mean big results.
Brands pay billions to work with top sports stars, clubs and associations. Consider the impact if just a few of these brands focused their campaigns on encouraging healthier, more active lifestyles for the whole nation. Imagine brands and sports organisations putting health and participation – and not just tickets, products and TV subscriptions – at the heart of their advertising. If sport and public health organisations can increasingly work together I think we can have a significant impact on the health of the nation in the short and the long term.