Going for gold: what are the chances of an Olympic health legacy?

Now that the Olympic party is over, journalists and policy wonks are rushing to talk about the aftermath. But has the Olympic Games – and let’s not forget the Paralympic Games to come – been simply one big party or has it left us with something more meaningful than the acres of news coverage it has generated?

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.

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#1323 David Walker
director, getstats

Interesting but there's a hidden causality in your piece - between sporting prowess by elite athletes and physical activity in the population at large. The two could be inversely related in both directions (as in the German Democratic Republic going one way or the Netherlands going the other). I'd like to see more sociological exposition of why seeing elite athletes perform leads to people walking more in Victoria Park. Is that even intuitive? The effect may exist but some demonstration is needed

#1324 David Walker
director, getstats


#1325 David Walker
director, getstats

There's a missing link, isn't there? Where is the evidence of 'emulation', that seeing stars perform leads to (causes) beneficial behavioural change - watching Bradley Wiggins makes you take exercise. You could imagine an inverse relationship (seeing the achievment makes paltry exercise seem more irrelevant); in the old German Democratic Republic sporting excellence was compatible with popular sloth. Getting the connexion, if any, right is important otherwise public health policy could be designed badly or even perverse

#1326 Scott Greer
University of Michigan

The other problem with this analysis (beyond that offered by David Walker) is that it ignores opportunity costs of the Olympics- in terms of expenditure and in terms of what it makes of sports policy. One immensely expensive green space in Stratford does not come close to counterbalancing reduction in green space (esp. school playing fields), and a huge investment in elite athletes and facilities does not counterbalance cuts to the more cost-effective programs promoting sport in the ordinary population. There might be some health benefits from a multi-billion-pound park in East London, but it's hard to argue that the rest of public expenditure is pointing the right way.

#1327 David Buck

Many thanks for your responses. On opportunity costs, yes i agree there WERE lots of alternatives for the Olympics budget, many of which would improve health much more directly. But the resources have now been committed and spent. The issue now is about making the most of where we are in terms of the health legacy. There is also much to say which didn't make it into the blog on the broader impacts of events like this, which may indirectly improve health. For example, some pretty robust looking analysis from NBER has suggested that winning - or even being a "bidder" and failing - for such events yields benefits to trade by signalling "openness" which leads to sustained increases in exports. Whether that would apply to London and the UK, widely recognised as being open already, is an open question. If its true it also has interesting incentive effects, perhaps when it comes to global sports events it pays to be in the game but win silver or bronze rather than gold!

#1328 Mick Smith
Partner Governor
West Suffolk FT

Coming from the Eastern Region I feel very lucky that our region has benefited already by these games. I am concerned though, that Lond9on has two other rival cities: manchester and Birmingham niether of which have hosted the games whilst London has hosted the games three times. Not good.
My other concern is that when carrying out the survey of the health Benefits to East Londernors please be realistic and understand that this project in Stratford will gentrify the whole area thus bringing in much healthier children. What it will not do is make the original children )whose parents will now be forced to move out) any healthier at all.
The rhetoric so far is that this will not happen but I just do not believe it as to maintain the status quo will not be a financially viable proposition.
Mick Smith 17th August 2012

#1329 irene bainbridge
sessional GP

A more cost-effective way of raising levels of physical activity in school age children attending State schools would be to halt the accelerating trend of selling school playing fields.
Also,It is doubtful whether extreme physical activity is beneficial to health. Indeed, the opposite is true of many sports eg gymnastics, football, boxing, to name but a few.
The Paralympics, however, even more than the Olympics, do exemplify what can be achieved with effort and determination and can serve as an inspiration to all.

#1330 mantumbu fukien...
arphy: association pour la réhabilitation des personnes avec handicap physique

I'd like to take part in the paralympic towernment some day, with my brothers handicapped persons

#1381 keef feeley
learning consultant
Success Feeleosophy

You may wish to consider this innovative idea-
Inspiring A Generation To Learn To Succeed"
The 2012 Olympic Legacy-Demonstrating what do we most need to learn to overcome the difficulties to achieve success success
Over 30 years ago as a teacher, I began posing this question to students, staff and parents
"What do we most need to learn to overcome the difficulties we are likely to meet to feel successful?" and at last I believe the 2012 London Olympics provides an opportunity to ‘Inspire A Generation’ and ‘spark a total rethink of learning, parenting, schools, universities, education, health and social services, prisons, economics, business, sport and the media.’(Miraculous! page4) in answering this question by using the role models and life stories of the Olympians as outstanding examples of the 8 skills needed to succeed.
By continually using and referring to the 8 success skills of the Olympians, these positive role models can inspire the next generation learn to succeed.
Just prior to the Olympics I completed my second book, Miraculous! which uses this approach in showing how a struggling troubled teenager is transformed into a successful sportsman in two years by helping him to develop his 8 success skills, while providing him an opportunity to practice and improve his sporting expertise. His salvation occurs initially in a very unusual residential ‘Learning For Success Centre’, applying the most extensive scientific research to provide extremely radical and effective innovative learning approaches, supported closely by his development coach.
This brief background information should further ‘spark your interest'.In July 1952 I was born in the blitzed east of London, almost exactly 60 years later the area had been completely regenerated to stage the 2012 Olympics. This coincidence is compounded by the fact that the motto for these games was ‘Inspiring A Generation’ which overlaps immensely with my social enterprise, Success Feelosophy’, as it aims to ‘Help Everyone Learn To Succeed’.
The success of these Olympics has been truly wonderful for me as it seemed to reflect so much of my personal beliefs, values and passion. I was brought up in very stereotypical working class parents of the fifties, trying to ‘what’s best for their kids’, without really understanding what that entailed or feeling we were ‘deprived’, but this background is central to my passion and expertise in the science of learning, teaching and sport.
In my opinion the 2012 London Olympics continually illustrated Success Feelosophy, applying the extensive scientific research throughout the world over the last 60 years, in all sorts of areas other than sport, such as business, leadership, neuroscience, physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, sociology, dietetics, music, ballet, etc. Therefore, I hope you agree with my suggestion for this long term legacy in which these Olympics can ‘Inspire a Generation’.
I do hope I hear from you asap.
All the best

Miraculous! is available at

#1398 Musa Yousuf
Public Health Practitioner
Cardiff Warriors Basketball

As a public health practitioner, I am often "confused" by the double standard to get people (young people) to be more active and the increasing cost of local leisure facilities (majority of which are delivered by private organisations). On a voluntary capacity, I run a basketball club for inner city youth, nearly all from deprived areas of Cardiff and have a large ethnic mix. Due to the cost of the hall hire, we have to find alternative courts outside in the local areas, most of which are unplayable due to lack of maintenance! Therefore, for an elite club like ours, who wants to develop and has over 40 players aged 15-48, seeing the Olympics and being inspired, we are still stuck in a limbo and feel that the health legacy will be short lived.

#1411 Liz Thomas
Senior Programme Manager Workforce Strategy
NHS North West

Some interesting discussion regarding the impact of e.g. reduction in school fields on reducing the potential legacy of the games. However, there needs to be some consideration given to cultural mores that impact on adolescents and sport participation, particularly girls, which as the article points out are more adversely effected. There is various research into girls' experiences of school sport which demonstrate that the traditional sporting culture and adolescent school girls life experiences are not supportive of one another preventing and reducing sports participation. Therefore it is not simply about providing the physical spaces for school children (and others) to engage in sport, but also about addressing the cultural barriers that prevent participation. One aspect of the games that might help challenge this is the visibility of our female athletes and their success, but I doubt this will be enough nor will it have a long-term impact. There needs to be more challenge to attitudes to create change.

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