Most of the talk about legacy has been about the feel good factor and the legacy related to elite sport: making sure we don’t suffer the traditional post-host dip in golds at Rio, or how the Olympics can inspire the next Jessica Ennis coming up through the ranks. However, the longer-term health legacy questions are about the effect on increasing the population’s physical fitness and the effect of Olympics-related regeneration on the health outcomes of East Londoners. So what are the prospects?
Neatly, the government estimated that physical inactivity cost the country £8.2bn in 2002, compared to the expected £8.8bn cost of the Games. If the Olympic legacy could reverse this, the Games may improve our health and just about pay for itself.
The latest data on children’s physical activity is from the 2008 Health Survey of England. 32 per cent of boys’ and 24 per cent of girls’ self-reported activity was consistent with meeting government guidelines, close to what objective accelerometry data verified. But this declined very rapidly as children moved into adolescence: 51 per cent of boys aged 4 to 10 met the guidelines but only 7 per cent of 11 to 15 year olds did. For girls it was worse: 34 per cent objectively meeting guidelines at the younger age, and none at the older age. The real challenge – and one of Olympic proportions – will be in pushing activity levels higher in primary school children, and in stopping the precipitative decline once they get to secondary school. The debate on the best way to do that will rumble on.
But participation in sports and other forms of exercise should not be seen just as a young person’s legacy. For adults, it is important to maintain heart health in middle age and to reduce frailty and falls in later life. The most recent data seems encouraging, showing an improvement in self-reported exercise consistent with government guidelines: up from 32 per cent to 39 per cent for men and from 21 per cent to 29 per cent for women since 1997. But that still leaves the large majority of us falling short of the guidelines. The reality is also worse than it seems. When respondents taking part in the survey were checked for actual activity using accelerometers only 6 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women met the guidelines.
From a London perspective, Londoners as a whole did no worse or better than non-Londoners, though residents of the former government’s inequality focused Spearhead primary care trusts – which four of the five Olympic boroughs are – were less likely to meet the guidelines. The recently announced Go London campaign will therefore have its work cut out in ensuring children maintain their exercise levels in the transition to adolescence, and in increasing public health awareness amongst adults and supporting them to improve.
However, the legacy for East Londoners’ health will not come through participation in sports or physical activity alone. The Olympic park will become a massive new green-space – much as Victoria Park, slightly further west, became London’s ‘green lung’ in Victorian times. There is strengthening evidence that the increased access to and use of green space in itself will improve mental wellbeing for the residents of some of the most deprived and poorest neighbourhoods in the country. The economic activity brought out by the connectivity of Crossrail and the Olympic Boroughs' convergence programme should also improve the health of long-term residents, as well as that of newcomers. The biggest challenge here is to ensure that inward migration to East London doesn’t lead to a skills-gap, with residents falling further behind newcomers as the Work Foundation has warned. Canary Wharf, just next door, provides a salutary lesson.
Finally, the really good news is that the National Institute for Health Research has commissioned a long-term evaluation of the effects of the regeneration associated with the Olympics on the health of children in the area. This should also help in cutting down the speculative column inches the next time a major sporting event reaches our shores.