Sport and exercise science and medicine: building on the Olympic legacy to improve the nation's health - Science and Technology Committee Contents


In this short inquiry we asked two questions: how robust is the research and evidence base for improving the performance of elite and non-elite athletes; and how can this knowledge be translated into treatments and preventative interventions to improve the nation's health? We focused on biomedical research that could enhance the performance of the individual. The context for our inquiry was the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games and the Government's commitments to the following legacies: to support the performance of elite athletes (measured by medals won at the Games); and to encourage the nation to be "healthier, happier and more active".

Science applied to the fields of sport and exercise is referred to as "sport and exercise science" (SES), and medical treatment and prevention of illness related to exercise and sport are referred to as "sport and exercise medicine" (SEM). Although this inquiry focused on sport as a form of physical activity, other forms of activity such as recreational walking and cycling, gardening and housework are also potentially important in improving people's health.

Quality of science

The evidence we received indicated that it is difficult to carry out high quality research on elite athletes. This is because sample sizes are small and there are no control groups for experimentally testing the effects of interventions to improve performance. Therefore, research on elite athletes is generally observational and anecdotal; at best it describes what, but does not explain why. We were presented with little evidence to suggest that the enhancement of the performance of elite athletes is generally based on strong biomedical science, nor that the latest advances in relevant areas of biomedical research are consistently applied to this work.

Given the difficulties associated with conducting research with elite athletes, the importance of a two-way flow between observations from elite athletes and rigorous research conducted on non-elite athletes and the wider public is all the greater. Neither UK Sport, the agency charged with ensuring the highest possible performance of the UK's elite athletes, nor their sponsoring Department, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, were able to demonstrate that they have rigorous, independent methods for ensuring that the science they rely on is of high quality.

Health benefits for the wider population

There is good international evidence that physical activity improves health in relation to a wide range of chronic diseases, although the underpinning mechanisms by which these benefits are brought about are not well understood. The majority of witnesses, although not all, agreed that, in principle, research on athletes by sports scientists could help provide health benefits for the wider public, as this could aid the development of preventative measures, treatments for members of the public who exercise infrequently (for example, weekly rather than daily), and inform the development of new interventions based on knowledge of physiological responses. However, there is relatively little "trickle-down" at the moment.


The evidence we received suggested that barriers preventing the treatment of ill health by exercise include lack of awareness by health professionals, inadequate training and guidance for these professionals, and lack of confidence in exercise referral schemes. In a survey of 48 London GP practices, no GP was aware of the latest physical activity guidelines.

We were also surprised, and disappointed, by the apparent lack of joined-up thinking in Government about the Olympic health legacy. The Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson MP, told us that his interest was in increasing participation in sport rather than improving the nation's health, the latter being the responsibility of the Department of Health. The Government need to take a consistent approach to health, physical activity and sport, and we recommend that they look to international models to learn from best practice.


As part of the Olympic legacy, the Department of Health has set up a National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine (NCSEM). We welcome this development. We are concerned that the funding for this is a one off £30 million capital investment, and there is no strategy for the long term sustainability of the NCSEM, nor is the role of the Centre clearly defined. We conclude that there is a need for greater leadership, particularly to improve the quality of research, if sport science research is to be more effective in both improving the performance of elite athletes, and if that knowledge is to be translated into public health benefits. Without this leadership, the opportunity provided by the Olympic legacy could be lost.

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