Recreational work: Are gyms really fixing it for you?

Health clubs need to focus less on glamour and more on the science of fitness, says Virginia Matthews
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The Independent Online

London's successful bid for the 2012 Olympics may have helped propel sport into the media spotlight, but for most of us, an hour or two a week at the local gym is the sum of our commitment to physical fitness.

Not so the professional sport and exercise scientist, whose job is to "apply scientific principles to the promotion, maintenance and enhancement of sport and exercise related behaviours" in the words of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), or put more simply, to study the physiology of the body in motion.

It's a fast-expanding area both for clubs and athletes - who see sport science as an integral part of both their sport's and their own personal development - and for hospitals, who increasingly appoint those with a background in exercise to work in cardiac rehabilitation or general health promotion work.

Yet while today's sport scientist plays an increasingly important role in maintaining the health of the nation, there is a question mark over the health of the profession's relationship with gyms. There is no doubt that gym or leisure club membership is growing fast in Britain - the Fitness Industry Association's (FIA) 2005 report puts the figure at 2,890 private health clubs and 2,596 public sports centres, with 724 more private clubs and 679 more public centres being planned.

For the seven million-plus Britons who are already members of clubs and leisure centres, the choice of classes on offer is seemingly endless. And then there are the personal trainers, who help people attain their health and fitness goals.

Yet according to BASES, the tight lycra and six pack mentality of too many health clubs is preventing serious health issues from being addressed. Dr John Buckley, a member of BASES and a lecturer in the School of Physiotherapy at Keele University, is helping to pioneer a new accreditation scheme for exercise scientists that puts more emphasis on practical skills.

A keen advocate of health-led, not beauty-led health clubs and gyms (he is also the co-founder of the Shrewsbury-based Lifestyle Fitness and Physiotherapy Centre), he believes that the ageing population and the rise in disorders such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity need to trigger a new and more rigorous approach to sport and exercise science by the entire fitness business.

"The health club industry is not encouraging sport and exercise scientists to join its ranks because the science of sport and exercise is not seen as being as glamorous as fitness instruction.

"While gyms see as it as their mission to encourage people to lose weight and look more beautiful, the health benefits of regular exercise are often omitted.

"By keeping us out of gyms, the fitness industry is missing out on a huge bank of scientifically-based health knowledge."

According to a spokesperson for the FIA though, sport scientists "represent the academic side of sport-related university courses and in some cases have fallen down through their lack of practical, hands-on experience in the field" .

Every year, about 10,000 graduates leave university with a sport and exercise-related degree. Those who study sport and exercise sciences usually follow the three core disciplines of physiology, psychology and biomechanics - defined by BASES as "the interaction of the body with apparatus or equipment through the application of mechanical principles".

While in the past, many sport scientists have been re-routed to managerial jobs at leisure centres and health clubs, the current growth in specialist degrees such as leisure management has, says the FIA, "freed up sport scientists to concentrate on developing their role as teachers, often in collaboration with the medical profession".

Dr Buckley believes that while some sport and exercise scientists choose to take these degrees out of pure interest, others have specific career goals in healthcare, medicine or rehabilitation.

Around 15 per cent of the 30,000 practitioners on the National Register for Exercise Professionals have a degree in sport and exercise, but the shortage of jobs in exercise referral or sports and exercise rehabilitation work has led many of them to train as fitness or personal instructors.

Eighteen years since Dr Buckley's Shrewsbury Centre was established, over 350 of the 550 members - many of whom have neurological, cardiovascular or muscle and joint health conditions - are over the age of 65.

He says: "The fitness industry must move up a gear if it is to serve the needs of its ageing population and must understand that we are going to require many more expert instructors working far more closely with doctors and physiotherapists if we are to meet the growing needs of clients.

"What we as sport scientists would like to see is genuine quality of service at gyms and health clubs, rather than fancy high-tech facilities and sheer vanity.

"A significant shift in culture away from merely beautiful bodies to far healthier bodies is long overdue."

Sam Howells: 'Gym jobs can be hard to get - they don't want to pay the money'

Sam Howells, 28, is a sport scientist and specialist in physiology with the privately owned Leisure Connection company, which invests in and runs 100 local authority leisure centres. She did a BSc in PE, Sport Science and Recreation Management at Loughborough, followed by a Masters degree in Sport Science. Her first job was at the Sports Council for Wales, where she worked with Lottery-funded athletes, while her second was at the Sports Injury and Human Performance Centre at Lilleshall.

Sport science is a niche discipline with too many people chasing too few jobs, and I am quite unusual in that all three of my jobs since leaving university have been in my own specialist field, rather than in general fitness or lifestyles roles. Gym jobs can be hard to get because they don't want to pay the money for a qualified sport scientist.

My specialism involves looking at the how the body works during sport and adapting peoples' diet to achieve peak physical performance. In Wales, I worked with athletes and coaches, while at Lilleshall, my clients included football referees.

My current job is academic rather than hands-on and involves rolling out a new interactive weight management programme aimed solely at ordinary people.

It's called HELP - Healthy Eating and Lifestyle Programme - and it is totally free to anyone who has a normal weight but is inactive, is overweight, or who needs the motivation to start regular exercising. The beauty of the scheme - which we're hoping to roll out to all Leisure Connection sites - is that there's no faddy eating or extreme exercise regime involved. It's easy to follow, easy to understand and in terms of motivation, the returns are good.

Sport science isn't always well known to the general public, but its role in promoting public health - whether via leisure centres or privately-run gyms - is paramount.

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