According to the findings of a five-year study led by researchers at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, the risks of serious injury from most sports and exercise are astonishingly low. The British Medical Association-funded study found that even forms of sport that the general public considers dangerous, such as road cycling, are generally safe, implying that the benefits of participating in fitness activities far outweigh the risks.
This is the first time that researchers in England and Wales have attempted to describe and quantify the relative risks of trauma caused by sport or other physical activity. It is hoped that the findings of the study will make it easier for both participants and organizers of activities to make their activities even safer.
The new study, which was published in the journal Injury Prevention by BMJ, used data from hospitals across the country where athletes and exercisers had suffered major trauma. The researchers discovered that sports and exercise caused a total of 11,702 trauma injuries between 2012 and 2017.
Dr. Sean Williams, principal investigator of the study and a researcher at the Department of Health and the Centre for Health and Injury and Illness Prevention at the University of Bath, said, “This work demonstrates that engaging in fitness activities is overwhelmingly a safe and beneficial pursuit.”
This work demonstrates that engaging in fitness activities is overwhelmingly a safe and beneficial pursuit. While no physical activity is entirely without risk, the chance of serious injury is exceedingly low when compared to the myriad health and wellness advantages gained from staying active.Dr. Sean Williams
“While no physical activity is entirely without risk, the chance of serious injury is exceedingly low when compared to the myriad health and wellness advantages gained from staying active.”
The study looked at 61 sports and other physical activities that are done across the country, regardless of popularity, and provided a comparable estimate of the risks to participants. Fitness activities (such as running, golf, dance classes, and gym sessions) are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the least likely to result in injury. Running causes 0.70 injuries, golf causes 1.25 injuries, and fitness classes cause 0.10 injuries per 100,000 participants per year.
Among sports with the highest participation, football had the highest injury incidence rate (6.56 injuries/100,000 participants/year), though this too is relatively small. Motorsports, equestrian activities and gliding (paragliding and hang gliding) were by far the riskiest activities of those studied, with motorsports resulting in 532 injuries, equestrian pursuits 235 and gliding 191 injuries per 100,000 participants. Male incidence (6.4 injuries/100,000 participants/year) was higher than female incidence (3.3 injuries/100,000 participants/year.
Why is exercise getting riskier?
Perhaps concerningly, injury risks for popular sports and other physical activities are increasing internationally. In Victoria, Australia, for instance, the annual rate of hospital-treated sports injury increased by 24% between 2004 and 2010, with an incidence of sport-related major trauma or death of 12.2 per 100,000 participants/year.
This trend is mirrored in the UK. Highlighting this is data from one regional trauma and spine unit, which identified an almost 500% increase in the incidence of serious motorsports accidents in the five years to 2015.
Dr Madi Davies, the study’s lead author and former post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bath, said: “When I looked at the injuries recorded in 2012 – the year the study started – it was clear that the risks were considerably lower than they were in later years of the study.”
She called for further research, “in real-time,” to understand exactly how and why more people are getting injured.
She said: “Though the finding that more people are getting injured could be multifaceted – trauma data recording has improved during the study, which means more injuries are now recorded – it’s important that any increases in burden are responded to, and that this data is used to make activities safer.”
Serious injury is a clear burden for hospitalized participants, their families, and the NHS; the goal of this study is to reduce these burdens by unpacking the injury risk of each activity and then coordinating action.
“Many sports and recreation injuries are preventable,” Dr. Williams said. “Whether that be through protective equipment, rule or law changes, or education, once we identify how and where injuries are occurring, we can start to think about ways to prevent them in each sport.”
It is hoped that this work will lead to the development of a national register with real-time data analysis opportunities. The register would standardise the recording of serious injuries resulting from sports and physical activity, so that trends or patterns in risk can be quickly identified and acted upon.
Trampoline safety is an example of where this has already occurred. Garden trampolines became popular in 2005, with up to 250,000 sold in the UK by 2014. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), in collaboration with the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, identified a spike in trampoline-related injuries and issued recommendations for improving safety, including limiting trampolining to one person at a time, keeping children under the age of six off trampolines, and purchasing models with a safety net.
Furthermore, trampoline manufacturers were assisted in meeting safety standards, such as by adding padding around trampolines. Commercial partners were also involved in order to improve trampoline park safety.