The good doctor’s sports prescription

The importance of sport in modern society is already well-documented, but its role has been greatly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. When we consider the fact that professional football and other sports continue to play out on the world stage – even in countries under lockdown and curfew – it is hard to deny that sport is one of the most pervasive institutions in our society. Yet the study of sport as an academic pursuit was largely seen as frivolous before the second half of the twentieth century. Today, sport is dissected, analyzed and scrutinized from nearly every conceivable angle, whether it be sociology, neurology and even economics. That scrutiny has been ratcheted up during this global crisis.

In the Netherlands, one of the people at the forefront of the study of sport during the Covid period is Dutch professor of neuropsychology, Erik Scherder, at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam (VU). Since his appearance on the popular talk show DWDD in 2015, Dr. Scherder has emerged as the public face of brain health in this country and for as long as he has held sway, his message has been persistent: brain health is inextricably tied to physical activity. Scherder has preached his gospel for a number of years now, tirelessly and with a tint of showmanship that makes him an extremely effective messenger. Since the onset of the pandemic, however, his tone has become even more resolute and he has made his message a solemn plea towards the general public as well as policy makers.

Scherder earnestly worries that the Covid crisis is even more lethal than the deaths directly attributable to the virus itself. As a result of the virus and the measures taken to combat it, people in the Netherlands are missing out on sport at an alarming rate. Nearly one half of the general population has reduced its physical activity, according to a study from Ipsos, commissioned by the Dutch national sports authority, the NOC*NSF. The short- and long-term effects will be witnessed by our health care ecosystem for years to come. Scherder warns of upticks in diabetes, heart and vascular disease, as well as more frequent onset of cognitive illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.

The downturn in physical activity and sport is not being helped by sharpened measures to combat the virus. Gyms and fitness facilities were largely shuttered for a second time before the Christmas holidays. Only outdoor activities are currently allowed, such as cycling, golf, running and skating, but none of these are particularly suited for the winter months. With the exception of ice skating, but, unless the mercury takes a February plunge, this will be confined to the small number of ice rinks in the country.

Dr. Scherder is not only emphasizing the downsides of a lack of physical activity, but also praises the significant upsides to getting ourselves in motion. Exercise offers one of the best science-backed defenses to Covid-19 available. In a country struggling to inoculate its inhabitants with the newly released vaccines, this is an important message. Another spot of bright news is the surge in viewership for the morning TV exercise program Nederland in Beweging. The program, featuring Olga Commandeur and Duco Bauwens, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and saw its audience double from 150.000 to 300.000. Unfortunately, that is only a small drop in the bucket when the challenge is to get some 17 million people moving.

The government seems to have heard Dr. Scherder’s message, but has been forced to make decisions which put sport and exercise in even greater jeopardy. The curfew is a cruel example of this. For those of you still wondering about the difference between a 20:30 and 21:00 start time, ask anyone involved in an amateur sport club about it – half an hour extra means the difference between one extra class or none.

To truly tackle the lack of exercise will require continued creativity and innovation to address the good doctor’s concerns. The solutions that are emerging aid us not only during this crisis, but in the long term as well. The sometime maligned slogan of “Build Back Better” has also been applied to sport and many of its facets are truly steps forward.

When looking for sustainable solutions to getting the broader public more active, Scherder has pointed to practices that are uniquely applicable to sports, such as the Athletic Skill Model. ASM is a methodology borne out of scientific work that breaks sport down into movement groups and sets out activities geared toward developing all-round athletes. While it comes from a pedigree of elite sport, its relevance to a much broader group is remarkably high. The move to specialization in sport, i.e. training for a specific sport, can become a liability during a pandemic. If we were more geared toward holistic approaches, the ability to continue with meaningful movement during times as these would be greatly enhanced for everyone, from elite athletes to the broader population.

Dr. Scherder’s message is clear: keep moving! Those not in motion must somehow, somewhere find a way to be physically active. It is worth noting that Dr. Scherder’s message is not limited to our relatively comfortable existence here in the Netherlands; he is also broadcasting it to the less fortunate, emphasizing the necessity and benefits of physical activity though organizations such as War Child. War Child, which incorporates sport in its activities geared toward children dealing with the scars of war, knows firsthand the value of Scherder’s wise counsel. Like similar good causes, such as Join for Africa, Right to Play and Women Win, it merits our attention and, when possible, our assistance.

Written by John Mahnen