Chronic diseases of lifestyle (also known as non-communicable diseases of lifestyle or NCDs of lifestyle) present the single most important current and future health threat to both developed and developing nations. These diseases are, to a large extent, caused by four behavioural risk factors, namely tobacco use, unhealthy diet, insufficient physical activity and the harmful use of alcohol, which are all pervasive aspects of economic transition, rapid urbanisation and 21st-century lifestyles. Physical inactivity is a particularly important risk factor, because it is highly prevalent, and has been shown to be associated with most NCDs of lifestyle. It is also known that the greatest effects of these diseases, and their risk factors, fall increasingly on low- and middle-income countries, and on poorer people within all countries, mirroring the underlying socio-economic determinants. In the South African context, NCDs of lifestyle are a major health threat and are likely to become the most common cause of death in the population.
In order to address this problem, the University of Pretoria (UP) identified 'Sport, exercise medicine and lifestyle interventions for chronic disease' as one of its four main strategic niche areas for research activity in the next decade. This led to the establishment of the Institute for Sport, Exercise Medicine and Lifestyle Research, under the directorship of Prof Martin Schwellnus, in June 2015. The vision of the Institute is to be an international leader in scientific, translational research that promotes health and well-being in the population through lifestyle interventions, reduces exercise-related injuries and medical complications, and promotes sporting excellence on a platform characterised by world-class education, service delivery and the use of modern technology.
The impact and relevance of the research undertaken by the Institute is reflected in its five overarching themes. The first of these, 'Lifestyle interventions for chronic disease', focusses on the prevention, management and rehabilitation of patients with NCDs of lifestyle through patient-centred, comprehensive lifestyle interventions that include promoting physical activity and participation in recreational sport. The second theme, 'Exercise-related injuries', centres around the prevention, non-surgical management and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal and other injuries that are incurred as a result of participation in sport. The focus of the third theme, 'Sports performance', is on the enhancement of excellence in sports performance, while the fourth theme, 'Medical complications and illness during exercise', focusses on the prevention and management of medical complications and illness that can result from an individual's participation in sport. The fifth theme, 'Sport and physical activity in society', includes research on economics, governance, management, ethics and education as it pertains to the main research areas of the Institute.
A key component of each of the Institute's research themes is a focus on the human being as a whole, within the context of society, through research activities that range from studying the human genome to conducting population-based epidemiological studies. There is also an emphasis on utilising existing and developing new technology – such as wearable devices, smart phones, online technology and cloud-based applications – to conduct research, deliver education and provide services in the fields covered by the Institute's research areas.
There are a number of researchers and research groups at UP that have been active in the fields of sport and exercise medicine, exercise and sports science, nutrition, physiotherapy, biokinetics and many other related or supporting fields, for a number of years. The Institute supports these researchers and research groups by fostering collaboration between the various faculties, institutes, centres and units with which they are affiliated. The objective is not only to support the existing complement of researchers at UP, but also to draw new researchers into the field and attract doctoral and post-doctoral students to the University. The research activities of the Institute also complement and expand existing post-graduate programmes by providing opportunities for master's, PhD and post-doctoral students to engage in the Institute's research areas through participating entities at UP, thereby promoting inclusivity and cross-pollination of research ideas and activities.
People from diverse cultures all across the world appreciate sporting excellence as it often represents communities or nations and provides people with inspiration, motivation, direction, and meaning. South Africans are especially well known for our love of sports and our own sporting champions play an important role in bringing people together with a common sense of pride in our rainbow nation. At UP there is a proud culture of sports participation and sporting excellence. The High Performance Centre, for example, plays an integral part in sporting excellence and success in South Africa, as more than half of the South African medallists at the recent Olympics and Commonwealth Games were supported by its staff and facilities. UP is not only a leading university in South Africa that produces elite athletes, but is also recognised for its comprehensive and successful sporting club infrastructure. As there are only a few tertiary institutions in South Africa, and very few internationally, that study the broader aspects of sport and its role in society the University has a unique opportunity to capitalise on the strengths of its sporting culture to become a national and global leader in researching the elements that contribute towards sporting success.