How exercise scientists help people keep up their January fitness resolutions

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The Independent Online

As the New Year loses a little more of its shine, many of us will already have abandoned the resolutions around smoking or thriftiness that have already proved too hard to keep.

Yet when it comes to making the time to exercise, the country's sport and exercise scientists – who focus increasingly on the nation's health as a whole, rather than solely on professional sportspeople – can offer practical help throughout 2008.

"The two key areas that our people need to grasp are physiology and psychology," says Dr John Buckley, founder and managing partner of the Lifestyle Exercise & Physiotherapy Centre in Shrewsbury and a senior lecturer in cardiovascular rehabilitation at the Centre of Exercise & Nutrition Science, based at the University of Chester.

"Aside from becoming experts on how the body functions, we also need to understand why so many people take up sport and exercise in the New Year, yet go back to their non-active lifestyles just weeks later.

"Unless we look at them holistically, and understand what motivates people to exercise in the first place, we can't help them achieve a more regular regime."

The study of sport and exercise science has developed fast in the past decade. While there are relatively few career openings in the field of elite athletics or professional training – where a practitioner may work with a Premier League football club or an Olympics team (see opposite) – Britain's appetite for a healthier lifestyle is opening new doors.

With between 3,000 and 5,000 graduate sport and exercise scientists already working in the field and as many as 9,000 more coming out of universities and colleges every year, oversupply may be a problem at present, according to Dr Martin Sellens, director of sports and exercise science at Essex University, yet this is about to change.

"People used to come into this industry because they wanted to study biomechanics and understand how a footballer such as David Beckham puts a curl on a ball, rather than because they cared about how a patient with heart trouble could become healthier through exercise.

"As the country's interest in health and fitness continues to develop though, practitioners will begin to find that their services are required by a whole range of public and private organisations," he says.

From its roots in PE and exercise instruction, the sport and exercise science professional now works in anything from private clinics and health clubs to local authority leisure centres, GP surgeries and NHS rehabilitation services.

While exercise instruction is still an important role, the clinical assessment of patients referred by GPs as a result of cardiac problems or perhaps cancer is where the profession is making a mark.

While a degree – preferably a BSc in sport and exercise science – is not mandatory, more and more employers expect practitioners to hold one. With most courses taking a multidisciplinary approach to the subject, it is a qualification that Sellens believes can provide "an understanding of general science as a whole."

The industry's leading professional association; the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), already has an accreditation system. According to Buckley, who acts as an adviser to BASES, compulsory registration will be in place within a few years, "as our partnership with the NHS deepens."

"While traditionally, people have come into the profession because they love sports, sport is actually a very small part of what we do," he says. "We are now attracting more people who are interested in health, exercise and rehabilitation issues and whose grasp of nutrition and metabolism is a valuable resource for the NHS.

"It is a very encouraging sign for the long-term health of the industry."

The appliance of science

Dr Martin Sellens, director of sport and exercise science at Essex University, outlines five simple ways to get fitter

* Choose a form of exercise you enjoy – that way you're more likely to stick to it

* Exercise to the point where you feel warm, not exhausted

* Assess your diet as well as your exercise needs

* Don't give yourself unachievable targets; 10 minutes a day is better than nothing and you can always build up

* Exercising with others may help you stick at it longer, but if you prefer your own company to an organised class, don't feel guilty

* Gyms can be expensive; walking in the open air or light jogging will suit many people far better than a treadmill