‘Dangers’ of suffering injuries while exercising and playing sports overblown, study reveals

BATH, United Kingdom — Do you want to exercise by riding your bike outdoors? Go for it. Is it time to lace up your cleats and play soccer again to stay in shape? Yes. Researchers from the University of Bath reveal that the chances of sustaining serious injuries in sports and exercise are remarkably small.

The study challenges common perceptions about the “dangers” associated with physical activities, even those considered risky by the public, like road cycling. These findings emphasize the advantages of engaging in fitness pursuits far outweigh the potential perils.

Scientists aimed to quantify the relative risks of trauma resulting from sports and physical activities. The research offers hope for safer participation and organizing of such activities in the future.

Researchers utilized data from hospitals nationwide where individuals presented with major trauma injuries related to sports and exercise between 2012 and 2017. They discovered a total of 11,702 trauma injuries arising from these activities during the study period.

“This work demonstrates that engaging in fitness activities is overwhelmingly a safe and beneficial pursuit,” says study principal investigator Dr. Sean Williams, a researcher at the Department for Health and the Center for Health and Injury and Illness Prevention at the University of Bath, in a university release. “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 evaluated 61 different sports and physical activities regardless of their popularity and provided a comparative assessment of the risks associated with each. Activities focused on fitness, such as running, golf, dance classes, and gym sessions, were found to be the least likely to result in injury. For example, running led to 0.70 injuries per 100,000 participants per year, golf had 1.25 injuries, and fitness classes only 0.10 injuries.

Among the most widely participated sports, football had the highest injury rate but still relatively low at 6.56 injuries per 100,000 participants per year. In contrast, motorsports, equestrian activities, and gliding (paragliding and hang gliding) proved to be the riskiest activities, with motorsports resulting in 532 injuries, equestrian pursuits causing 235 injuries, and gliding accounting for 191 injuries per 100,000 participants.

Football players tackling each other on grass field.
Football players playing on field. (Courtesy Chris Chow on Unsplash)

The study also found that injury rates were higher among males (6.4 injuries per 100,000 participants per year) compared to females (3.3 injuries per 100,000 participants per year).

One concerning trend highlighted in the research is the increasing injury risks associated with popular sports and physical activities internationally. In Australia, for instance, the annual rate of hospital-treated sports injuries rose by 24 percent between 2004 and 2010, with a sport-related major trauma or death incidence of 12.2 per 100,000 participants per year. This trend is mirrored in the United Kingdom, with data showing a nearly 500 percent increase in serious motorsports accidents over the five years leading up to 2015.

“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,” notes study lead author Dr. Madi Davies, a former post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bath.

The study’s ultimate goal is to reduce the burden of serious injuries among participants, their families, and the health care system.

“Many sport and recreation injuries are preventable,” says Dr. Williams. “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.”

The research may lead to the creation of a national register with real-time data analysis capabilities, standardizing the recording of serious injuries resulting from sports and physical activity. Such a register would enable quick identification and response to trends or patterns in risk, potentially making activities safer for everyone.

A prime example of this proactive approach is the improvement in trampoline safety. After a surge in garden trampoline sales in the U.K. in 2005, leading to numerous injuries, safety recommendations were issued, including limiting trampolining to one person at a time and adding safety nets to trampoline designs. The result: a significant drop in serious accidents, demonstrating the positive impact of safety measures.

The study is published in the journal Injury Prevention.

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