Her Majesty's 2010 Christmas message carried much about the value of sport.

She spoke of health, well-being and social cohesion. But she also evoked a rather cosy world of bright-eyed amateurs and volunteers. "In the parks of towns and cities, and on village greens up and down the country, countless thousands of people every week give up their time to participate in sport and exercise of all sorts, or simply encourage others to do so." However, is sport and exercise science simply a hobby or is it something more?

Sport and exercise science started as a sideline. In the 19th century, physical training and diet were based on personal belief or untested reasoning. For example, many sports emphasised the importance of eating meat to replace the muscle supposedly broken by exercise. The most notable pedestrian of the 19th century, Captain Robert Barclay Allardice, who famously covered one mile every hour for 1,000 hours, ate a diet of predominantly meat, avoiding dairy products and vegetables.

However, as passionate doctors and biologists began to ask questions and conduct experiments, a scientific picture began to emerge. By the middle decades of the 20th century, politicians, doctors, athletes and businesses were recognising the value of new discoveries.

Since the Eighties, sport and exercise science has boomed, and become a driving force for change. Examples in the UK have included government policies on exercise in the treatment and prevention of chronic disease and obesity; sports science support for elite sportsmen and women; and numerous business ventures drawing on new scientific knowledge to sell improved exercise and sports equipment, sports drinks or personalised fitness regimes. UK research is world-class and the latest government assessment exercise in 2008 commented: "The top departments in the UK are judged as being among the best departments in the world."

There are now many thousands of sport and exercise scientists working in the UK. For example, the English Institute of Sport works in partnership with sport to improve performance and achieve medal success on the international stage. It has a network of 15 high-performance centres with 250 sports science and medicine staff delivering 4,000 hours of direct athlete support each week. More than 50,000 young people apply each year for the 10,000 sport and exercise science degree vacancies at UK universities.

The Government's new university tuition fee regime for 2012 raises the question of whether it will it be worth students investing up to £27,000 for a graduate education in sport and exercise science. Data from Universities UK suggests excellent prospects. Graduate employment in the sport and exercise science field is similar to that in psychology and agriculture, and better than in biology, chemistry, physics, maths and most arts subjects. Sixty-nine per cent of students have found graduate jobs within six months of leaving university, with a further 15 per cent undertaking further study. Unemployment, at 6.9 per cent, is the lowest of all bio-scientific graduates.

In the UK, the sports sector is worth an estimated £16.7bn and employs 441,000 people, 76 per cent in the commercial sector, 11 per cent voluntary and 13 per cent the public sector. No data are available to determine the proportion that is related directly to sport and exercise science. However, the rate of graduate employment, the continued growth in the number of gyms and health clubs, public sector health initiatives, and the take-up of science by elite sport suggest a positive future.

In 2009, Manchester United football club's sports physiology laboratory director Dr Richard Hawkins said: "We utilise various forms of technology on a daily basis... laboratory testing forms the bedrock of the whole process, enabling us to make more informed decisions relating to the development and readiness of our players."

There is almost universal public recognition of the value of a scientific approach to sport and exercise in the quest for Olympic medals and good health. From a passionate start a century ago, sport and exercise science has become a profession in its own right. It has intellectual coherence, a substantial and sophisticated knowledge set, standards of practice and ethics, and a professional body – the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences.