It was a day after the official opening of the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine East Midlands (NCSEM-EM) building on Loughborough University’s campus when Professor Mark Lewis felt proudest.
“I remember walking round and seeing it all working,” says Professor Lewis, who is Director of the NCSEM-EM, Dean of Loughborough University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, and a leading expert in musculoskeletal biology.
“There was discussion of the case of a well-known England cricket international receiving medical advice on protecting his lower back. A class of older people, all of them with heart or lung problems, were taking part in an exercise class. Other individuals were having an MRI scan at the Centre. Elsewhere, academics were discussing their latest research with visiting health professionals from the East Midlands’ biggest hospital trusts.
“I thought to myself, this is exactly what this place is supposed to do. It was a satisfying moment.”
I’m very optimistic about a future where sport and exercise can deliver some of the things that medicine can’t.
The concept for the NCSEM was initiated in 2012, as part of the legacy from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Its three constituent centres – based in Loughborough, Sheffield and London – were collectively tasked with improving the nation’s health and preventing the onset of disease.
The East Midlands Centre is providing a brand new model in healthcare delivery, allowing academics to work in close collaboration with clinicians and, perhaps most importantly of all, with the members of the public who’ll benefit directly from the academics’ research.
“We have patients here on campus for the very first time. We’re able to see our research in action, and the effect it has on people and their lives, more easily than ever before. Universities today are increasingly asked to show the impact of their research, and this is a perfect example of that.”
The NCSEM-EM is a joint initiative between Loughborough University, the universities of Nottingham and Leicester, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust and Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.
It brings together experts from around the region who specialise in conditions such as chronic disease, sports injuries and musculoskeletal health. Those experts are working together to treat and prevent injuries caused by exercise and to tackle conditions associated with a lack of exercise. They’re also contributing to the ’exercise is medicine’ agenda – helping those with diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Alzheimer’s and Osteoarthritis to alleviate their symptoms through exercise and enjoy a better quality of life.
“The universities undertake the research and teaching, and the health trusts do clinical practice,” says Professor Lewis. “We’re finding that if you can gather robust evidence through research then you can make a bespoke programme of exercise; the results, for all kinds of people with an array of conditions and ailments, are startling. “If you could deliver so many positive outcomes with a single pill it would be so expensive it would bankrupt the NHS. And yet the answer is out there. It already exists.”
All we need to do, says Professor Lewis, is learn how to utilise it better.
We’re able to see our research in action, and the effect it has on people and their lives, more easily than ever before.
“People are living longer and experiencing more of these chronic conditions, but they do respond well to exercise. We need more evidence of the correct prescription for each condition and then to embed this into society. We need to educate our children, our town planners and architects to make it easier to walk and cycle to places. In the past, buildings were designed around staircases. Now it’s lifts. Let’s bring the stairs back – we’ll all benefit from that.
“I’m very optimistic about a future where sport and exercise can deliver some of the things that medicine can’t.”
A similar story is emerging at the Peter Harrison Centre for Disability Sport within the University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences. There, under the expert guidance of Professor Vicky Tolfrey, academics are studying our Paralympic athletes – not only to help their athletic performances, but to help other people with disabilities.
“I think the story of our Paralympians, and the journey they’ve been on, is inspirational,” says Professor Tolfrey. “By analysing their skills, their techniques, their hard-won knowledge, we can make life better for all people with disabilities.
“So we have strength and conditioning coaches, lifestyle managers, physios, a host of experts, finding integrated solutions for a variety of problems. And then we throw our doors open to pass on our findings.
“For example, it might sound strange but people don’t often get wheelchair skills training, so we show them the optimum way to use their chair that will minimise stress on their body. We disseminate findings to people who have recently had an amputation and show them the benefits that working on their upper body strength can bring.”
But it’s not just about helping them physically, according to Professor Tolfrey. “From the feedback we get we’re helping to give them back some identity – and that’s so important.”
“We’re able to see our research in action, and the effect it has on people and their lives, more easily than ever before.”