The benefits of exercise are well documented. Whatever your age, there’s strong scientific evidence that being physically active can help you lead a healthier and happier life.
It can help you lose weight, reduces your risk of major illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer by up to 50 per cent, and lowers your risk of early death by up to 30 per cent. Research shows that physical activity can also boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reducing your risk of stress, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
From the very start, a core rationale of London 2012 was to ensure it provided opportunities for people across the UK long after the games finished and leave a tangible legacy reaching across the community, business, tourism and regeneration. A key part is to make sport and exercise accessible for all, from the enthusiast through to elite athletes.
Companies which backed the games have continued to support sport, particularly at grass roots level. Elite sport is also benefiting from an increase in lottery and Exchequer funding from UK Sport. Funding for elite sport has increased by 13 per cent for the four years leading to Rio 2016, a 7 per cent increase for Olympians and a 45 per cent increase for Paralympians. The Prime Minister announced that government funding for Britain’s Olympic sports will be extended until the Rio Olympics in 2016. UK Sport will also receive £125 million per year. It had previously been announced that the estimated £40 million from the Exchequer for that funding would only be guaranteed until the end of 2014. UK Sport has set the very challenging target of winning more Olympic and Paralympic medals than the fantastic numbers achieved in 2012.
We also need to use this momentum and get the public on board by promoting the benefits of exercise and healthy lifestyles to those who were inspired by what they saw in 2012. Inactivity is the biggest threat to our wellbeing as a nation. We need to start at the very beginning and set life-long good habits. The cornerstone of London’s bid was to inspire children globally to take up sport.
However, inspiring youngsters today is a tall order. A lot of young people live in a world of reality television and instant fame, which is the opposite of an athlete’s journey. Our challenge is to engage with young people in something that does not happen overnight. When a coach sees a talent in the swimming pool or on the running track he might explain to them, ‘You may not see much development over the first five years, but I think you have talent, and if you apply yourself, you could be really good.’
But there is so much progress being made. I am lucky as I spend a lot of time seeing it first-hand and I know there is massive excitement and creativity. There are many organisations with a thirst for achievement. When I went to Stoke recently I saw people rowing and canoeing on Trentham Lake who wouldn’t even have known that the lake existed two years ago.
The whole nation has to support this mission because it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Marginal changes can make a difference and everyone needs to play their part. That’s the health lesson we need to learn, for ourselves and Britain as a whole.
The National Health Service obviously has an important role, but it is being weighed down by the cost of treating avoidable illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The answer could be straightforward. According to work carried out by UK Active, just a 1 per cent increase in national activity could save the NHS up to £2 billion a year. And we now have a real opportunity to tackle the issue. Because this isn’t just a problem for government or local authorities — we need a co-ordinated effort across areas from transport to urban planning, as well as looking at nutrition and exercise. That’s why I helped launch the Moving More, Living More initiative to promote physical activity with government, local authorities and others earlier this year.
Companies can make a difference too and be part of this concerted movement towards improved health for all. As well as the vital funding they provide to make sport and physical activity accessible in the local community, they have a captive audience in their own staff. Many will spend most of their waking hours at work, so it’s the ideal setting to help embed healthy lifestyle changes on a very practical level. Britain’s Healthiest Company, which is run by Vitality Health, highlights those companies that are doing their bit and are examples of best practice.
The project’s research among over 25,000 working people showed that employees tend to be overly optimistic about their current state of health; a third have three or more bad habits or risk factors but of these, 58 per cent believe they are in ‘good’ or ‘very good’ health, meaning they are less likely to have the motivation to change. Left unaddressed, these lifestyle risks ultimately develop into chronic disease, with around one in five employees already suffering from at least one lifestyle-related chronic condition such as heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure, so there is work to be done.
Sometimes it is about one change you could make. These days I don’t train like I did when I was a professional athlete, but I keep my exercise up — running every other day, on a treadmill or around the countryside with my dog. I’ll try to build activity into my working day, too: walking between meetings rather than taking the bus. Not everyone can be an Olympic athlete. Indeed not everyone will take up a sport. But I believe everyone can find a form of physical activity they enjoy. You have to make adjustments but the changes don’t have to be dramatic.
So I was delighted to see the companies and employees who took part in Britain’s Healthiest Company playing their part, making changes to their lifestyles or encouraging good practice in the company as a whole.
I know from those hectic years vying for the right to hold the London 2012 Olympic Games, the preparations, the staging and lastly managing the legacy, that if you want to have a happy, healthy workforce, then you need to encourage everyone to do the best they can, and support them too, to achieve a healthy work-life balance.
My main hope for the Olympics is that people will challenge themselves to do things they might never have done before. We can all help encourage this by reaching people in every area of their lives, starting when they are at school, through to the workplace and making facilities available for all in their local communities.