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Science

Exercise study jumps on the 'Olympics effect'

A long-term study suggests even moderate exercise has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the heart. But despite London's inspiring Olympics, getting people into sports is tricky.

Regular physical activity has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and keeps it healthy in the long term, according to a study by the British Heart Foundation and University College London (UCL).

"Previous studies looking at how exercise protects the heart have only been carried out for short periods of time," says lead author Dr Mark Hamer of UCL.

"Our 10-year study reveals for the first time the long-term effects of leading an active lifestyle on inflammation and heart disease," he says.

The study examined about 4,000 civil servants in the UK with an average age of just over 49 years.

Inflammation in the body worsens as we get older and is thought to be one of the reasons why people develop atherosclerosis - or furring of the arteries - which can lead to heart disease.

elderly people playing golf

Staying active is important at any age

Experts encourage everyone to exercise at least moderately - even gardening and DIY count as beneficial activities.

Getting people active is tricky

That is the theory. But getting people moving and sticking with it is tricky.

Big events like the London Olympics are said to have spurred enthusiasm for sports, but it often feels like a long way from the sofa to the gym, or the great outdoors.

The organizers of London 2012 say they want a legacy of the Games to be that a million people are inspired to take up some form of exercise three times a week.

Figures released last December by the British government show that sports participation has dropped, compared with the year before.

"The older you get, the less sport you participate in," says Sam Tomlin from the UK's independent Sports Thinks Tank.

Tomlin says people often drop out of sporting activities as soon as they are no longer arranged for them through school. That would be at a very young age.

"Most of the discussions in the UK have now gone onto community sports, grassroots sports - how do we build on the success of the elite athletes?" Tomlin says.

He says a lot of people - mostly women - are put off sports by bad experiences early on in life, such as at school, and that is where efforts should be focused.

exposed pipe in a school gym with kids in background

Sports facilities in schools are not always ideal

"The [UK] government has suggested all schools should be attached to local sports clubs," says Tomlin. "That could bridge the gap between when children leave school to a period when sports are not organized for them and it means more effort."

"No magic wand"

As Tomlin points out, there is "no magic wand" and motivation is vital.

When it comes to inspiring future generations of elite athletes, school sports play a big role, but often facilities or opportunities are reduced.

"Experts keep pointing out that there isn't enough physical education (PE) in schools and that there should be at least three lessons a week. Sometimes, children don't even get one or two good lessons a week," says Jörg Hahn from the German Sports Aid Association (Deutsche Sporthilfe), a non-profit organization that supports athletes.

Giving sports a low priority in academic terms is adding to the problem.

"Children [in Germany] are so tied up with non-PE classes that it's hard to fit in any kind of activity in the afternoon - unlike 10, 20 or 30 years ago when I was at school. They simply have no spare time," says Hahn.

Jonas Reckermann and Julius Brink of Germany celebrate after they won match point against Alison Cerutti and Emanuel Rego of Brazil during the Men's Beach Volleyball Gold medal match on Day 13 of the London 2012 Olympics Games at Horse Guard's Parade on August 9, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Most Germans believe athletes are role models

Both Tomlin and Hahn believe schools and sports club should work closely together to give children the opportunities and motivation to stick with a sport - as in the US or Australia.

The Olympics effect

Big sporting events like the women's 2011 Football World Cup in Germany can help.

There was an increase in membership after the tournament and a survey conducted last year by the German Sports Aid Association and the German Sports Polytechnic in Cologne showed that events like the World Cup or the Olympics motivate about 23 percent of Germans to participate in sports themselves.

According to the survey, over 80 percent believe that athletes are important role models when it comes to fairness, performance and a sense of community. Now, all they need to do is get off that sofa and their hearts will thank them for it.

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