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Fitness levels fall despite London Olympics sport boost

Children more involved in sport since 2012 but less fit

Adrian O'Dowd

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Children have become more involved in sport since the 2012 London Olympics, but this interest has not translated into increased fitness, suggests a study published today in the online journal BMJ Open.

The bid that secured the UK host status for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, announced in 2005, was based on a promise to “inspire a generation” and “create a legacy of sport and healthy living”.

However, a team of researchers led by Dr Gavin Sandercock of the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Essex found fitness levels appear to have decreased since the games took place.

Previous research called the Active People Survey showed an initial increase of around half a million adults participating in a weekly 30-minute session of sporting activities between April 2012 and April 2013.

But data indicate that since then, the number of 16-25 year olds doing this has fallen.

The researchers set out to find out if London 2012 was associated with increased levels of physical activity, physical fitness and changes in body mass index (BMI), so carried out a before-and-after study among pupils at six schools within a 50km radius of the Olympic park in East London.

For the study, 733 children between the ages of 10 and 16 were assessed in 2008-9, up to 3+years before London 2012, and 931 children from the same schools in 2013-14, up to 18 months afterwards.

At both time points they were asked about how much inspiration they took from the Games, and how much physical activity they did.

Their cardio-respiratory fitness was assessed in a 20-metre shuttle run by peak V02 – a measure of oxygen uptake linked to the capacity to perform sustained exercise.

More than half (53%) of the children said London 2012 had inspired them to try new sports and/or activities.

Children who continued to take part in sports/activities in the 18 months after London 2012 were more active and fitter than those who did not.

Results showed that peak V02 was higher among those who continued to participate in sports/activities 18 months after London 2012 compared with those who said they were not inspired by the Olympics.

This 45% of the sample who continued their sports/activities were also more physically active than those who said they were not inspired, or had been only briefly inspired, by London 2012.

However, peak V02 was significantly lower after London 2012 than it had been before among all the children.

The authors said because this was an observational study, no firm conclusions could be drawn about cause and effect and they also cautioned that they could not discount the possibility that the children who had been inspired by the Olympics might already have been fitter and more active.

Nevertheless, the overall lower level of fitness measured was a cause for concern, they argued, because low levels of cardio-respiratory fitness in childhood were associated with a higher risk of metabolic disorders in adulthood.

They concluded: “High levels of inspiration to participate in new activities reported following London 2012 and positive associations with fitness are encouraging. [But] these associations must be interpreted in the context of the significant declines in fitness shown by our repeated cross-sectional comparison.”

* Sandercock G R H, et al. Is Olympic inspiration associated with fitness and physical activity in English schoolchildren? A repeated cross-sectional comparison before and 18 months after London 2012. BMJ Open Publish 23 November 2016 DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2016-011670

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