Professor Mike Weed, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise discusses if sport investment is harming public health.  

Hot on the heels of #WorldObesityDay and #WorldMentalHealthDay, both of which highlight issues that provide a significant part of the justification for government investment in sport, Sport England this week proudly announced that 300,000 more people are doing the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity than this time last year.

This an excellent public health outcome, as there is clear evidence to show that more people getting more active can play a role in addressing both obesity and mental health issues.  But that 300,000 more people are reaching recommended levels of physical activity is not a justification for investing our taxes in sport. In fact, a closer look at the data suggests we should do exactly the opposite. And the way the data has been communicated suggests that this has been deliberately obfuscated.

In December 2015 the UK Government launched Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation.  This extended its sport strategy to include wider physical activity such as walking and active transport, and in May 2016, Sport England launched its strategy, Towards an Active Nation, which did the same. Alongside these strategies, a new survey, Active Lives, was developed, and it is data from Active Lives that was announced by Sport England this week.

In welcoming the announcement of 300,000 more people reaching recommended levels of physical activity, the Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch explained that “We are working hard to get more people active and harness the benefits that sport brings”. And this data, announced by Sport England, would appear to suggest that government investment in sport is not only justified, but that it is working.

But it is not! Behind the headline figure, the data shows that the number of people achieving 150 active minutes through sporting activities has fallen by 225,000 in the last year, and the number of people participating in sport twice a week, the government’s favoured measure, has fallen by 400,000. The activity driving the growth in increased physical activity is walking, with almost 750,000 new people walking for leisure at least twice a week, and over 450,000 new people achieving recommended levels of physical activity through walking for leisure. So far from government investment in sport “harnessing the benefits sport brings”, it is being squandered as people are turning away from sport and finding other ways to become physically active.

But worse, by using smoke and mirrors to claim that data that aggregates sport and physical activity is a justification for investment in sport, the Minister for Sport is gerrymandering, expanding the boundaries of sport to include other activities in order to suggest government investment is a success when in fact it is a failure. What’s more, the opportunity cost of continuing to support failing investment in sport, is a lost opportunity to increase successful investment in wider physical activity.  If the latter could be successful where the former is failing, then far from harnessing benefits, the net effect of government sport strategy and investment is to harm public health.

Mike Weed is Professor of Applied Policy Sciences and Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise.