Sport as medicine

September 4, 2017

This academic year sees Newcastle University launch the first sport and exercise science degree to be based in a medical school. Alison Cowie speaks to Professor Emma Stevenson, who was tasked with developing the new discipline two years ago, to find out more

The first cohort of undergraduates will begin a new BSc sport and exercise science degree at Newcastle University this month.

What makes this different from the many other sports sciences courses offered across the UK, though, is that it will be based within a medical school.

Emma Stevenson, professor of sport and exercise science, who was charged with establishing the new discipline in the 183-year-old medical school, reveals: “At the moment, it’s the only sport and exercise science degree to be based in a medical school and it’s an especially big step forward for the discipline to be integrated into a Russell Group renowned one.”

While sports sciences have traditionally not been held in the same regard as clinical medicine, the move by Newcastle University is re ective of the growing recognition that exercise can have a major impact on the treatment and prevention of disease – especially relevant for our ageing population.

North East-born Emma studied an undergraduate degree in sport and exercise science at Loughborough University, followed by a PhD in sports nutrition and exercise metabolism. During her time at Loughborough she also worked with many athletes including aspiring England women footballers.

Following her PhD Emma took an industry- funded post-doctoral research post at the University of Nottingham, investigating the impact of exercise on appetite regulation, before returning to the region to take up a lectureship at Northumbria University in 2006.

Nine years later, in 2015, the now professor was enticed across the city to Newcastle University, attracted by the chance to set up a sport and exercise science department within one of the UK’s most esteemed medical schools.

Once in post, Emma set about writing the three-year undergraduate course, which was fully approved in April 2016 in preparation for this year’s applicants.

Around 40 students will begin the science- focused course this month and will study a combination of physiology, biomechanics, nutrition, strength and conditioning and psychology.

Emma predicts that graduates of the degree will either choose to study a masters in a speci c area of sport and exercise science or seek employment in high-performance sport, the NHS, local authority sports programmes or in industry – in the pharmaceutical or nutrition sectors, for example.

The former Dame Allan’s pupil who played hockey and netball at school, has also built key partnerships in the region including with Newcastle Falcons Rugby, Newcastle United and Newcastle United Foundation.

“We’ve recently signed a three-year contract with Newcastle Falcons that includes a PhD student who is joint funded by the club and the university. The student will monitor the first
team players to assess the long-term impact of training on illness, injury and recovery, while we are helping Newcastle United Foundation with the development of its community programmes and how to monitor the effects on general health and wellbeing in the region.”

Fully integrating sport and exercise science into the medical school is key for Emma and a number of research projects have already been established. These include investigating how exercise and nutrition can be used in the prevention and treatment of diabetes and cardiovascular and liver disease.

Medical experts will also be drafted in to talk to the sport and exercise science students to give them a more detailed clinical understanding.

Over the past two years, Emma has worked closely with architects in the design of a sport centre extension at the university, part of a £30 million investment in outdoor and indoor sports facilities.

Building work begins this December on the Richardson Road site and is due for completion in summer 2019. Features will include state-of-the- art biomechanics and physiology laboratories, an environmental chamber, gait track and nutrition kitchen, an eight-court sports hall, four squash courts, a strength and conditioning suite and two exercise studios.

With a combination of high quality science- focused teaching, key industry and academic partnerships in the region and beyond, and cutting edge facilities, Emma hopes Newcastle University will cement itself as the number one destination for sports and exercise science learning and research in the UK.

Events such as this month’s International Sports Science and Sports Medicine Conference and December’s International Sports and Exercise Nutrition Conference, which takes place at the university this autumn and will attract academics and professionals from around the world, will also help to build Newcastle University Medical School’s reputation in the sports and exercise science discipline – and ensure the historic school stays at the forefront of medical innovation.