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NIHR Signal London 2012 Olympics regeneration had minimal impact on physical and mental health

Published on 29 January 2019

doi: 10.3310/signal-000718

The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games had only small and transient effects on physical activity, mental health and well-being for those living nearby. Although access to sporting facilities and green space improved, local adolescents and their parents did not receive any sustained positive effect on physical activity, mental health or well-being.

This NIHR-funded study assessed the impact of a multicomponent urban regeneration programme linked to the Olympics. It looked at changes in health and well-being of 2,254 adolescents, plus their parents, comparing those from Newham - the area most affected by Olympic regeneration - with three other east London boroughs.

The study found that sport-related urban regeneration programmes are unlikely to be effective for improving physical and mental health and should not be oversold in terms of their health impacts.

Share your views on the research.

Why was this study needed?

Despite large sums of public money being spent on urban regeneration programmes, there is limited evidence about their effects on the health and well-being of those living nearby. In the UK, assessments of previous programmes have found a mix of both positive and negative effects.

It is important for decision-makers to have a realistic understanding of the health effects of sport-related urban regeneration programmes. The London Olympics provided an opportunity to assess the effects of associated urban regeneration on the physical and mental health of those living nearby.  

What did this study do?

This was a prospective cohort study of 2,254 adolescents in 25 schools (age 11-12 at the start of the study) and of their parents or carers. It compared those living in Newham (where the Olympic Park is situated), with those in and Barking and Dagenham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Self-report questionnaires were used to assess changes including physical activity and sedentary behaviour, anxiety, depression and well-being. Data was collected during the run-up to the Olympics in 2012, and at six and 18 months after it had finished.

The study also included a qualitative analysis of the experiences of 20 families, supplemented by three school-based focus groups.  

Study limitations include residual confounding by differences in local population characteristics and the effects of ongoing funding reductions for public services over the period. Additionally, a detailed assessment of individuals’ exposure to urban regeneration projects was not undertaken, and the study excluded young children and adults who were not parents.

What did it find?

  • The study found some transient effects at six months, but minimal evidence of sustained changes in physical and mental health or well-being 18 months after the Olympics.
  • Changes in physical activity and sedentary behaviours of adolescents and parents were no different between boroughs at 18 months.
  • Changes in reported depression and anxiety of adolescents and parents were mostly no different between boroughs at 18 months, although adolescents from Newham were more likely to have remained depressed.
  • Wellbeing was unaffected for adolescents or parents at 18 months.
  • Residents generally welcomed the cleaner, safer and more unified environment, and felt less socially excluded. However, the regeneration did not address their most pressing concern: a shortage of affordable and social housing.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

No relevant guidance is available.

What are the implications?

This study suggests that although local access to sporting facilities and high-quality green space may be improved by sport-related urban regeneration projects, these might not lead to sustained improvements in physical activity, mental health, or well-being.

Although residents welcomed the improvements to their environment, the Olympics provided only temporary respite from the stresses of everyday life. Decision-makers should be sceptical of claims that such events are an effective way to improve health and well-being in the local area.

Citation and Funding

Cummins S, Clark C, Lewis D et al. The effects of the London 2012 Olympics and related urban regeneration on physical and mental health: The ORiEL mixed-methods evaluation of a natural experiment. Public Health Res. 2018;6(12).

This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research programme (project number 09/3005/09).

Bibliography

Thomson H, Atkinson R, Petticrew M et al. Do urban regeneration programmes improve public health and reduce health inequalities? A synthesis of the evidence from UK policy and practice (1980-2004). J Epidemiol Community Health. 2006;60(2):108-15.

Why was this study needed?

Despite large sums of public money being spent on urban regeneration programmes, there is limited evidence about their effects on the health and well-being of those living nearby. In the UK, assessments of previous programmes have found a mix of both positive and negative effects.

It is important for decision-makers to have a realistic understanding of the health effects of sport-related urban regeneration programmes. The London Olympics provided an opportunity to assess the effects of associated urban regeneration on the physical and mental health of those living nearby.  

What did this study do?

This was a prospective cohort study of 2,254 adolescents in 25 schools (age 11-12 at the start of the study) and of their parents or carers. It compared those living in Newham (where the Olympic Park is situated), with those in and Barking and Dagenham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Self-report questionnaires were used to assess changes including physical activity and sedentary behaviour, anxiety, depression and well-being. Data was collected during the run-up to the Olympics in 2012, and at six and 18 months after it had finished.

The study also included a qualitative analysis of the experiences of 20 families, supplemented by three school-based focus groups.  

Study limitations include residual confounding by differences in local population characteristics and the effects of ongoing funding reductions for public services over the period. Additionally, a detailed assessment of individuals’ exposure to urban regeneration projects was not undertaken, and the study excluded young children and adults who were not parents.

What did it find?

  • The study found some transient effects at six months, but minimal evidence of sustained changes in physical and mental health or well-being 18 months after the Olympics.
  • Changes in physical activity and sedentary behaviours of adolescents and parents were no different between boroughs at 18 months.
  • Changes in reported depression and anxiety of adolescents and parents were mostly no different between boroughs at 18 months, although adolescents from Newham were more likely to have remained depressed.
  • Wellbeing was unaffected for adolescents or parents at 18 months.
  • Residents generally welcomed the cleaner, safer and more unified environment, and felt less socially excluded. However, the regeneration did not address their most pressing concern: a shortage of affordable and social housing.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

No relevant guidance is available.

What are the implications?

This study suggests that although local access to sporting facilities and high-quality green space may be improved by sport-related urban regeneration projects, these might not lead to sustained improvements in physical activity, mental health, or well-being.

Although residents welcomed the improvements to their environment, the Olympics provided only temporary respite from the stresses of everyday life. Decision-makers should be sceptical of claims that such events are an effective way to improve health and well-being in the local area.

Citation and Funding

Cummins S, Clark C, Lewis D et al. The effects of the London 2012 Olympics and related urban regeneration on physical and mental health: The ORiEL mixed-methods evaluation of a natural experiment. Public Health Res. 2018;6(12).

This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research programme (project number 09/3005/09).

Bibliography

Thomson H, Atkinson R, Petticrew M et al. Do urban regeneration programmes improve public health and reduce health inequalities? A synthesis of the evidence from UK policy and practice (1980-2004). J Epidemiol Community Health. 2006;60(2):108-15.

The effects of the London 2012 Olympics and related urban regeneration on physical and mental health: the ORiEL mixed-methods evaluation of a natural experiment

Published on 9 November 2018

Cummins S, Clark C, Lewis D, Smith N, Thompson C, Smuk M, Stansfeld S, Taylor S, Fahy A, Greenhalgh T & Eldridge S.

Public Health Research Volume 6 Issue 12 , 2018

Background There is limited evidence for public health policy-makers on the health impacts of urban regeneration programmes. Objectives To assess whether or not the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and related urban regeneration, were associated with an increase in physical activity and mental health and well-being; to assess whether or not any benefits were sustained over time; and to capture the experiences of residents of the Olympic host boroughs. Design Quasi-experimental prospective cohort study of adolescents and their parents/carers, with a nested qualitative longitudinal study of families. Setting London boroughs of Newham, Barking and Dagenham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney. Participants A cohort of 2254 adolescents in 25 schools; a repeat cross-sectional study of parents/carers and a sample of 20 families for the qualitative study. Intervention The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and urban regeneration primarily associated with the redevelopment of the Olympic Park for legacy use. Primary outcome measures Change in the proportion of respondents meeting physical activity recommendations (using self-reported physical activity); change in the proportion of respondents reporting depression and anxiety and change in well-being score. Main results At 6 months, adolescents who became inactive were less likely to come from the intervention borough (Newham) than from comparison boroughs [risk ratio (RR) = 0.69, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.51 to 0.93]. At 18 months, there were no statistically significant differences between intervention and comparison boroughs for all adolescent physical activity and screen-time transitions. Those who visited the Olympic Park more than once a month were the least likely to remain inactive (RR 0.11, 95% CI 0.02 to 0.48) and the least likely to become inactive (RR 0.38, 95% CI 0.24 to 0.60) compared with those who were active at baseline and at the 18-month follow-up. No impacts on parental/carer physical activity were observed. Adolescents who were ‘no longer depressed’ (RR 1.53, 95% CI 1.07 to 2.20) or ‘remained depressed’ (RR 1.78, 95% CI 1.12 to 2.83) at 6 months were more likely to be from the intervention borough. For well-being, there was no association between boroughs and change in well-being between baseline and the 6-month follow-up. At 18 months’ follow-up, adolescents who ‘remained depressed’ (RR 1.93, 95% CI 1.01 to 3.70) were more likely to be from the intervention borough than from comparison boroughs. No associations were observed for well-being at 18 months. There was limited evidence of change for parental mental health and well-being. The qualitative study found that residents generally welcomed the unexpected chance to live in a cleaner, safer and more unified environment. The findings suggested that the Games temporarily alleviated certain stressors in the social and physical environment. Overall, the Games lessened participants’ sense of social exclusion and appeared to generate a sense of inclusion and respite, even if this was only temporary. Study limitations include the potential for adolescents to not be assigned the correct level of exposure to urban regeneration and the effect of reductions in central and local public budgets owing to the UK Government’s deficit reduction programme. Conclusions This study provided the highest quality data to date on the short- and medium-term social and health impacts of sporting mega-events. We found limited evidence that the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games had a positive effect on adolescent or parental physical activity, mental health or well-being. Funding The National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research programme.

Expert commentary

Politicians continue to promote the hosting of mega sports events on the grounds that they inspire increased participation in sport and activity and that local residents will benefit from the new infrastructures. There are no evaluations to date that have shown such positive outcomes. This study has the most robust design to date and focussed on the London 2012 Olympic events. 

The findings suggest that decision makers considering the case for, and the cost of, hosting mega sports events must think hard about their reasoning that such events improve health and well-being. However, there may be reasons other than health that can justify a decision to host such events.

Professor Nanette Mutrie, Director of Physical Activity for Health Research Centre, University of Edinburgh; Institute for Sport, Physical Education and Health Sciences

The commentator declares no conflicting interests