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A Health Kick for Community Sport

By Dr Marjorie O'Neill on January 3, 2019 in Other

The greatest touch football team of all time, by Anita Lam

Summertime is here and that means mid-week touch and tag footy is back. It’s a great time to get out there and enjoy the longer, warmer days, while also getting fit and making new friends, or just getting together with old ones.

We are so fortunate in the Eastern Suburbs with our many beautiful local parks and community sporting opportunities. We must never take these for granted and we must preserve the special role sport and sporting spaces have in our society. At the same time, there are some downsides to the central role sport plays in Australia. We need to acknowledge that sport is a source of injury and that not all members of our community have the same opportunities to participate and enjoy local sports.

Let’s be clear that participating in team sports throughout our lives is a very worthwhile pursuit with numerous direct and indirect benefits. Multiple studies have shown that participating in team sports boosts our overall health and wellbeing, at the same time connecting us with people from diverse backgrounds, with the added social and emotional benefits of making us feel part of a larger community. Additionally, several studies have revealed other holistic benefits of participating in team sports such as reducing obesity and increasing self-esteem, and some studies have even shown that team sports make us smarter!

I am a huge promoter of community sports participation for all ages and I know from first-hand experience that our sporting hubs such as Queens Park, Centennial Park and Heffron Park are really ‘critical infrastructure’ for people of all ages across our local communities in the Eastern Suburbs.

Despite the obvious benefits of sport participation, it’s hard to overlook the irony of so many active and fit sportsmen and women experiencing the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament, or ‘ACL’, injuries – a common knee injury but also one of the most serious. We’ve all seen NRL players on the ground writhing in agony after doing an ACL and it’s equally as likely to happen on any given weekday at a suburban touch football competition.

There’s no getting away from the fact that playing sport can leave us with injuries. Australia has one of the highest rates of ACL injuries in the world, with approximately 72 per cent of ruptures sport related. ACL injuries increase rapidly during the early teenage years and peak between the ages of 15 and 25. Research shows girls and women are two to 10 times more likely to rupture their ACL when participating in certain sports.Costly knee reconstructions

are most often required following this injury and the injured person can suffer lifelong consequences. Almost all athletes who tear their ACL are at increased risk of osteoarthritis later in life.
Despite sport related knee injuries in Australia increasing by five per cent a year, ACL injury is largely preventable. By engaging in preventive programs from a young age, trials have shown that prevention programs could reduce the risk of ACL injuries in females by 52 per cent and 85 per cent in males.

Preventative programs are well understood and used in elite athlete training. As increasing numbers of kids participate in such sports, embedding these programs into grassroots sports would have long-term preventative health impacts. It is estimated that for every 100,000 high-risk sport playing youth, there are 3,764 lifetime ACL ruptures, 842 lifetime cases of osteoarthritis and 585 total knee reconstructions. Many of these could be prevented by instilling better sporting habits from a young age when kids are first introduced to high impact sports.

One of the major objectives in setting public policy in the sporting sphere must be to ensure that more preventative injury programs are embedded in all community sporting activities. Around 35
per cent of traumatic spinal cord injuries occurred while the person was engaged in a sport or leisure activity. About three per cent were incurred whilst playing rugby. This is a dreadful outcome and these injury rates should be considered unacceptable given that sport is meant to be primarily a health, leisure and social activity.

I’m not suggesting people stop playing the team sports they love, but what we need to consider as
a society is better preventative health in the sporting realm. Prevention is always better than cure.
One other factor to ponder when we’re talking about promoting sport and community health
is the fact that involvement in organised sport and physical activity decreases with age. The most recent data shows that people aged 15-24 years have the highest rate of involvement in a playing role (43 per cent) and the highest rate of involvement in sport overall (44 per cent). In comparison, people aged 55-64 and 65 years plus have the lowest rate of involvement in a playing role (18 per cent and 17 per cent respectively) and the lowest involvement in sport overall (19 per cent and 18 per cent respectively). This needs to be addressed. Sport, in various forms, can and should be a lifetime activity.

Sporting activities, with their health and social benefits, are worthy of encouragement and support across our entire community. What I’d like to see in the continued sup- port and promotion of community sport is threefold. First, we must protect our sporting spaces – as regular readers know, this is a passion of mine. Second, we must develop community campaigns to ensure a better delivery of preventative injury programs. And finally, we need a new focus on how best to engage our older age groups in community sporting activities. After years of playing netball, basketball and rugby union – and a little cricket and water polo – without engaging in the proper preventive training, my knees are not too crash hot these days. The mere site of someone running on concrete sends shivers down my spine.

Many of us have our own sporting injury story, and sometimes that very story is the reason we don’t participate in sport the way we did in our younger days. Let’s try to do better and reduce the harmful side of some community sporting activities while also working to- ward a more equal participation in sporting activities across all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic groups, in our valuable green spaces across the Eastern Suburbs.

Now blow that whistle, ref!

Dr Marjorie O’Neill is a Waverley Councillor. The views expressed here are her own, although we generally agree with them.