Helen Barratt: An Olympic task

One of the reasons London’s bid for the 2012 Olympics was successful was apparently the detailed health legacy it proposed. As well as the development of new sporting facilities, the aim is to promote greater levels of physical activity right across the country. In London alone, Department of Health statistics suggest that over 65% of men, 75% of women, 33% of boys and 50% of girls are not sufficiently active for good health.

Lured by the promise of a bus tour around the Olympic site in east London, I recently attended a workshop aimed at trainees in a variety of disciplines, including public health and sports medicine. Together we had lengthy discussions about how the NHS could become a ‘model employer’, leading the way in promoting exercise.

Many of my friends working in the private sector have access to subsidised gyms, and many even have sports facilities on site. They also have lunch breaks when they can leave the office to attend, for example, a pilates class. However, it’s difficult to see how this could be achieved in the NHS. Although one of the hospitals I worked in had a sports club, how many junior doctors are able to leave the ward at lunchtime for any length of time, or guarantee getting away at a reasonable time at the end of the day? How would nurses respond to a doctor answering a bleep from the gym?! My medical friends are some of the least active people I know, and this is due at least in part to the unpredictability of our working lives.

The role of the NHS in promoting public health messages such as exercise to the wider population is open to debate, but it can arguably only have a credible voice if it first enthuses and equips us, its staff to become more physically active. Even after our discussions, the best way to do this is unclear. Answers on a postcard please!

Helen Barratt is an Academic Clinical Fellow in Public Health Medicine in London.