Keith Wood, former World Rugby Player of the Year and now director of Orreco, on how sport and health research can benefit the entire country.
Sport is many things. Competitive, recreational, team-based, individual, healthy, physically demanding, enhancing, educational, social and solitary. Anecdotal words that are trotted out all the time.
We live in the anecdotal. I played professional or elite sport for 12 years and, ironically, I had 12 operations. Not the healthiest statistic, I know, but – anecdotally – I would say that playing sport helped me to be healthy and has done so since I retired 13 years ago.
I suppose, ‘being healthy’ is in the eye of the beholder.
Rio 2016 has reflected both the good and bad in sport, raising some philosophical questions along the way.
Do the Olympics and competitive sport really benefit the wider population? Can the incremental changes and improvements in training and nutrition we see in elite sport have a translatable impact on the health of our nation? And if not, why not?
This is where the anecdotal can be limiting.
We can glory in the exploits of our elite sports men and women but the very vast majority of our population will not and cannot emulate such feats. We don’t have to, but we can achieve our own personal goals.
The Olympians are the example of what can be achieved. The data analysis of their exploits is essential to give a template for the rest of us to participate in a recreational fashion.
There is one proviso: there has to be a comprehensive evaluation process. You can never say there has been an improvement unless there is movement from a baseline.
We all believe exercise is good for you. Well, how good is it for you? And how do we know? How can we qualify and quantify how good it is for this person, that person, this group of people?
This is where the researchers and scientists come in. They can use the data and the evaluations on an ongoing basis to show that this exercise works; to say that if you do this, you’ll get healthier, both in body and mind.
‘Preventative measures to improve the health of a nation are a way of sidestepping the economic carnage coming down the track’
Pilot studies are essential to get past the anecdotal and into the sphere of science and research. Armed with research evidence, we can then say that this exercise or programme can make a material difference to our lives. This helps to justify more investment in sport and exercise, nutrition and wellbeing programmes on a national and community level.
Preventative measures to improve the health of a nation are a way of sidestepping the economic carnage coming down the track. We need to recognise this fact, and this is not anecdotal. If we’re an unhealthy country, it costs the country. If we’re healthy, it saves the country a fortune. And I think we should all be about saving a bit of money right now, and making ourselves healthier to boot.
By Keith Wood
Keith Wood played rugby for Ireland from 1994 to 2003 and was World Rugby Player of the Year 2001. He is chair of the Healthy Ireland Council and patron of the UNESCO Chair for Inclusive Physical Education, Sport, Recreation and Fitness in Tralee IT. He is also a director of Orreco, a bio-marker data analysis company for elite athletes; and of Clarisford Park, a community sports facility and Green Lab in his home town of Killaloe, Co Clare, which you can read more about here.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Irish Research Council blog