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An educated answer to the national health crisis

As a nation, we're facing a health crisis. Our population is ageing, we have the third highest adult obesity rate in the OECD and our rates of chronic diseases are rapidly increasing. We're at the wrong end of the world scale and it's essential that we move quickly to respond to this.

We all know that exercise promotes health, but we're only now starting to understand just how important personally prescribed exercise programmes can be in the intervention of chronic health conditions.

The benefits of exercise as both a preventative and rehabilitative treatment to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease or chronic pain and injury are huge and this knowledge can bring with it big opportunities for New Zealanders.

In fact, we're seeing the emergence of a new field of health in New Zealand, specifically dedicated to this. It's called clinical exercise physiology.

It's been a registered health profession in countries all around the world for many years, including in the United States, UK, South Africa and Australia, but it's only just emerging in New Zealand.

To work in this area requires knowledge not only of exercise, but of the diseases and illnesses that exercise is applied to. The Clinical Exercise Physiology New Zealand (CEPNZ) board is in the process of pushing through the registration for this profession. Very soon, clinical exercise physiologists will become part of our allied health workforce meaning they'll sit alongside health professionals such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists and social workers. When this happens, its impact will be a game changer.

But to make it successful, we need the workforce behind it. The University of Auckland estimated that New Zealand will soon need between 700 and 800 clinical exercise physiologists. Right now we have none.

So we need to prepare for this, quickly. At the Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec), we've embedded specific well-being modules within our sports and exercise degree and have developed a clinical exercise physiology qualification, offered at post grad level. We're offering 12 scholarships to the postgraduate programmes this year.

We're also running a specialised exercise (biokinetic) clinic which focuses on rehabilitation for people living with chronic health conditions. At the same time, this gives our students valuable real-life experience. Our students assess the clients and work with them to prescribe and deliver exercise programmes under close supervision.

The results have been astounding. For example, 75-year-old Noel Ellesmere came to us after undergoing seven surgeries for colorectal cancer as well as a knee replacement. He was experiencing chronic pain and could hardly move. His doctor told him it was just something he'd have to get used to, but after six months on the programme things have completely changed. He tells us everything is now working together and he has a whole new lease on life.

It's been a real success for the clients and our students and the service is expanding this year to take on 50 new clients. We have plans to expand further and have staff and students delivering programmes in places like aged-care facilities and hospitals.

Initiatives like these are essential in order to position ourselves for the changes we're about to see. But these aren't the only changes in the health and wellbeing space to consider. The new legislation around health and safety also threatens to have a significant impact, particularly on our young people. As the risk of personal liability increases, institutions like schools will pull back from anything aligned with that risk, and that's likely to be physical activity.

Around a third of our children are overweight. Although exercise has always been an important part of the school system, it may no longer be worth the risk for people. So our kids could become less active and increasingly unhealthy.

We need to respond to this and to make sure our schools feel safe to engage in physical activities. At Wintec, we're doing this through the development of safety management qualifications as well as planned engagement with schools and community groups.

We are heading in the right direction. There's now a clear direction from government that we need to address these issues. But we need to prepare for this together. We need to use our knowledge of how exercise and health conditions fit together and we need to do everything we can to prevent disease and illness early on.​

About the author

Greg Smith is the Centre Director of the Centre of Sport Science and Human Performance at Wintec.