Both the Government and health professionals are constantly telling us we should exercise, and that the young in particular should participate in sport. The consequences of neglecting this advice can be dire: obesity, degenerative diseases, even premature death. There is another side to the coin though.
In December last year, Michael Schumacher suffered a serious head injury while skiing off-piste in the French Alps; at the time of writing he remains in a serious medical condition. Many people have noted the irony of a man who races cars for a living coming to grief not on the track but while engaged in what for him must have seemed a harmless recreation. The reality is that off or on-piste, skiing is not an entirely risk-free sport. In March 2009, the actress Natasha Richardson fell over while taking a skiing lesson in Canada. Like Michael Schumacher she hit her head, but because her injury was apparently slight, she refused medical treatment. She died two days later.
It is not unlikely that if she had taken the blow to her head more seriously, she would still be alive today. It is of course futile to speculate, but boxers who have suffered head injuries have been saved from near certain death by being taken straight to hospital for observation.
Like life in general, sport has its risks, though clearly some are more dangerous than others. Some are so dangerous that they require high risk life insurance. (The following figures have been converted approximately from £ sterling). Twelve years ago, Michael Schumacher was said to have insured his life for $90 million with Lloyds of London, which cost him around $3.5 million a year. Obviously that is exceptional because so is he, but how does that rank alongside say sky diving?
Currently, a specialist company in the UK is offering sky divers $169,000 cover on a single jump for $42. There are exclusions including the obvious ones of diving and dying under the influence of alcohol, but do the math: $169,000 divided by 25 works out to 6,760 jumps. There are big discounts for annual cover, so bearing in mind that this company will be turning a handsome profit, we can be fairly certain that in spite of its apparent daredevil ethos, sky diving is by and large a safe pastime.
Other sports may be less of a risk to life and limb, tennis for example, but when one takes into consideration other factors, sky diving doesn’t shape up too badly against them. Jumping out of a plane under controlled conditions will probably not give you tennis elbow, or a hamstring injury as runners suffer not infrequently, and no one is likely to hit you on the head with intent, as in the boxing ring.
Okay, if sky diving is relatively safe, what sports are not? There are many studies on this subject, and some of their conclusions may surprise you. Would you believe that cheerleading is said to be the most dangerous specifically female sport? Take a gander at some of the statistics here. Although cheerleading is not quite uniquely American, it remains overwhelmingly so, and weighs in at number 5 on this list, ahead of both bull riding and bull running. Top of the list is cave diving.
If the statistics relating to fatalities and serious injuries alarm you, there is no way out, because as stated above, we are forever being warned that unless we take more exercise we risk being sent to an early grave. Then there are all the other so-called risk factors, like eating too much saturated fat, or drinking too much alcohol, and best not to mention cigarettes. The big question though is do sportsmen and women live longer than couch potatoes? Not necessarily! Although he was a boxer when he was young, Nelson Mandela spent nearly three decades in prison where he contracted tuberculosis, yet he died aged 95. Last month, soccer player Peter McAvoy died from a suspected heart attack aged just 22. True, it is easy to select examples like this, and there does appear to be some evidence that Olympic medalists live longer than the rest of us. It is a truism though that it is not so much the length of life but the depth that is important. If you want to devote your best years to physically punishing routines which may result in a medal or two at the end of the ordeal, that is your choice, but most people will in practice opt for an easy life rather than a challenging one.