Ego and physical activity advice

Academic work can be rough on egos. Particularly in the social sciences, where ideas matter. We cultivate our reputations over years, but confidence is a brittle thing – just one chastening book review or article rejection away from frustration, anger or anxiety. In a sense, absorbing criticism is inherent to an ideal university structure. As Stuart Hall said, “The university is a critical institution or it is nothing”. Still, it is often difficult to be either the giver or recipient of a scathing critique.

Being on the receiving end of criticism recently really brought this home to me. I co-signed a letter calling for tackling in rugby to be removed from schools (thereby protecting the bodies of school children from one of the most injurious sports), but there was widespread opposition to the idea. That was understandable, but what irked was that the opposition was often coupled with criticism of the letters signers, with claims that we in our ivory towers didn’t know what we were talking about. The idea to remove tackling was labelled ridiculous, as were the letter writers. It was no fun to have my expertise questioned, much less lambasted.

I am also conscious the egos of others might have been caught up in my own critiques of policy ideas. For example, in journals, presentations and on the blog, I have rejected the claims of scholars regarding the corporate influence of companies such as Coke and Nike on physical activity scholarship. More subtly, I have critiqued the ideas of physical activity scholars who have been trying to advance the discipline and promotion of physical activity. While I would not detract from honest academic labour, I do suspect that there have been times where other academics could have taken my analyses personally. So while the ideas are the target of critique, it is impossible to completely disentangle an idea from the person who espouses it. This potential for ego damage is an inherent condition of academic work. That is unfortunate. Where I have less sympathy is when corporate interests are directing the ideas that are generated. Happily and uncritically toeing the line of a company is simply academic dishonesty. You become a shill, not a critical voice in society.

Academics also put themselves up for ridicule in opinion pieces in the press. Consider this recent opinion article in The Times.

After an Oxford professor suggested people pay at the pump of petrol stations rather than entering a service station shop to be surrounded by sugar, the commentator in The Times wrote:

“Who the hell are you saying this to, Professor Jebb? I thought Oxford lectures unlocked the secrets of the physical universe or proposed new ways to unpick Sumerian orthography. But now it’s, “Don’t go into sweet shops, boys and girls, or you’re gonna get fat”? …
Seriously, though? Your answer to Britain’s greatest health calamity since the Black Death is to gently direct people away from places where sweeties are sold? …
That’s a pretty damning view of humanity, isn’t it? That’s what leads some cultures to veil their women from head to toe, because if men can see their lovely faces, like yummy sweeties on a checkout shelf, they cannot be trusted not to have sex with them right there on the street.”

I’m not quite British enough yet to understand the extent of playful sarcasm or liberal distain for the Professor here. Whatever the case, the writer severely misrepresents what Professor Jebb was saying. I wonder if public shaming like this chips away at the enthusiasm of academics to convey their voices in public. Or worse, if it means some health promotion ideas never see the light of day because of a fear of ridicule. But this opinion piece also raises some concerns for how physical activity and health academics portray their work. And it highlights the problem of trying to gain and maintain legitimacy in an area where many structures seem unbudge-able, so academic advice becomes directed at individuals who are more nudgeable. A health promoter’s job is to give practical advice about healthy living, and resisting unhealthy choice architecture (at petrol stations and elsewhere) is one aspect of the job. But there is a risk of academics in physical activity and health being limited to repeating common sense clichés about how to live healthy lives.

In 2014, Public Health England said there needs to be a revolution in physical activity. Revolutions are only possible by upsetting the status quo. And so academics need to be not only willing to do this, but also be prepared for the critiques of those with different agendas. We can rest assured that when giving controversial advice, or advice which negatively affects corporate interests, there is actually no need for our ego at all. We embody one of the seven principles of UK public life – selflessness.

McDonald’s sponsorship of children’s sport

I, and others, have written about how problematic it is that companies which sell ultra-processed food also heavily target young people in their advertising. Even worse is when companies make children do the advertising themselves. See below this from Nottingham in the UK, March 2018: (photo credit: David O’B)


Many sport organisations have safeguarding policies, but this does not seem to extend to protecting children from exploitation by companies selling all manner of ultra-processed food.

What is physical activity? A definition

The definition offered below differs from recent policy definitions of physical activity. It attempts to capture physical activity by acknowledging the variety of meanings that we attribute to it. I humbly accept that what follows is only a partial definition, and encourage the reader to link these possible aspects of physical activity with their own experiences.

Physical activity might be :













J Piggin, 2018

For more on this issue, please see:

Piggin, J. & Hart, L. (2017). Physical activity advocacy in the UK: A multiple streams analysis of a hybrid policy issue, Leisure Studies. 36, 5. 708-720.

Piggin, J & Bairner, A (2016) The global physical inactivity pandemic: An analysis of knowledge production. Sport, Education and Society. 21, 2. 131-147.


The Routledge Handbook of Physical Activity Policy and Practice

I am immensely happy to have been a co-editor of the above book. With Dr Louise Mansfield and Prof Mike Weed, we have attempted to bring together the enormous diversity of scholarly thinking about PA policy and practice.

Rather than solely focusing on physical activity as a means for making populations “healthier” (as judged by traditional health markers), we have included a wide range of chapters to encourage academics, policy makers, practitioners and students to question some of the assumptions about physical activity that have become established in recent years. 75 contributing authors provide contemporary and evocative chapters which frame physical activity in:

  • different ways for …
  • different groups who have …
  • different motivations for achieving …
  • different outcomes.

Therefore, interventions that policy makers deploy must be informed not only by good evidence but also by a sympathy for people whose lives are complex and often constrained by unbudgable (and un-nudgable) forces. Being physically active might not only be a healthy choice … it might also be deeply political.

More detail on the book, including the full table of contents can be found here.

Joe Piggin


An urgent call for clarity regarding England Rugby’s injury claims – update

A couple of weeks ago, Prof Alan Bairner and I wrote an analysis of England Rugby’s false and misleading injury rate claims. Here is the link:

I can now report that England Rugby responded. Here is the initial response – with names redacted:

Dear Joe, 

Thank you very much for your email and for bringing this to attention.

The RFU takes player safety extremely seriously. I would like to take the opportunity to respond to your email and to you and Professor Bairner on your editorial (An urgent call for clarity regarding England Rugby’s injury claims). 

We acknowledge that an editing error was made in the wording used as part of our Rugby Safe booklet, which was published two years ago. It should have read: There is no evidence to show that rugby poses a specifically greater risk of catastrophic injury than other sports and other activities to align with the graphic used directly after it on page eight (screengrab attached). This was a mistake as part of the publishing process.

We want to ensure all our resources include accurate information, so will be undertaking the following:

  • Amending the 2015 Rugby Safe booklet to remove the inaccurate wording with immediate effect (the 2015 document has already been removed from our website)
  • Publishing an updated Rugby Safe booklet next season using the latest research and findings

The RFU has apologised to Colin Fuller for the error. It was not our intention to mislead. We will continue our ongoing commitment and work to ensure player welfare is central to all that we do.
Yours sincerely,

###### #####


##### ####

For more see:

Piggin, J. & Bairner, A. (2017) An urgent call for clarity regarding England Rugby’s injury claims. Nordic Sport Science Forum

Just a pose juxtaposed

Rome blog photo

Corporate brands spend millions of dollars to offer us visions of fitness, physical activity and success (#wantitmore). At the same time, there are young people literally rolling around on the public footpath with their mates.

This is not a post critiquing either pose. Someone might be as offended by the sexualisation of the female model as by the footpath being usurped for motives other than pedestrianism. However, it did make me wonder about what we should spend our time wondering about. Static, decapitated displays shouting from commercial billboards? Or the anarchic, concrete activities of those who find and use space when and where they can?


Joe Piggin

And one more on Big Sugar’s impact on science …

I was at a conference in Brasil recently, where one study examined the use of carbohydrate during endurance exercise. Here were the findings which were presented to around 300 undergraduate and postgraduate sport students:

And there was more:
So the take home message was “consume a lot of carbohydrate”.

Then the speaker had to acknowledge the funders of the study. Here is the slide showing them:


The two top organisations were not described as problematic in any way. Instead they were positively acknowledged for their financial contributions. If you look around their websites you will clearly see a “pro-sugar” attitude of these organisations. and (At the end of 2016, the “British Nutrition Foundation” ceased operating.)

On the day of the conference I took a screenshot of the info on their website. You can see just how much they advocate the use of sugar and refute sugar consumption as a cause of obesity. And even more incredibly, the source for their claim about sugar not causing obesity … is themselves! What a scam this is!


You can also see that many of the companies providing money to the British Nutrition Foundation have a strong profit motive for increasing consumption of their high sugar products.
I wonder if the closure of the British Nutrition Foundation is connected with consumers moving away from high sugar products?
Joe Piggin

UK Sport’s explanation of medal success (and “super-elite athletes”)

Organised sport in the UK has been heavily criticized in recent months, and with good reason. The issues gaining most media attention include:

  • Shocking historical and recent sexual abuse in football
  • Accusations of bullying in British cycling and British swimming
  • Distrubing player management policies in elite rugby
  • Two children being killed after participating in boxing and kickboxing matches

I am sure most sport in the UK is organised well and respectful of participants. These events did remind me though of UK Sport’s explanation of how they try to win medals. At a talk last year a representative from UK Sport (the govt funder of high performance sport) put up these slides to show how they perceive medal attainment. It is somewhat discomforting to know that they have done research in “super-elite athletes” and discovered they had often “experienced childhood trauma”.


“Experiencing childhood trauma” as a factor in becoming a super elite athlete!!!??? If that is the recipe for winning gold medals, I think the fewer super-elite athletes there are, the better! Of course, one might argue that this is an opportunity to turn negative experiences into positive ones, but it is still very problematic. See below some of the so-called “coconuts” that lead to medals.


Talking up “individualised coaching” and “no limits environment” is a cause for concern.  As is encouraging people to focus on the “mundane”. No wonder many athletes retire from their sport with few transferable skills, other than “dedication”.

We need to develop a kinder approach to athlete management, by moving away from “No compromise” policies, and towards an approach that values the long term well-being of participants more than the short term medal outputs.

Joe Piggin

New Zealand Cricket – promoting sport and junk food to children

In 2004, the World Health Organisation noted that “Most national regulations recognize children as a special group in need of special consideration and stipulate that advertising should not be harmful or exploitative of their credulity.”

It was unfortunate then, to watch the half time break in an international match between New Zealand and South Africa at Eden Park in Auckland where more than 100 children were adorned in McDonald’s branded t shirts and played on the field.

Eden Park McD

The 3o minutes of play was framed by the stadium commentator as a wonderful opportunity for the children, and McDonald’s were promoted as contributing positively to the development of the sport for young people. Some parents were clearly happy with their children on show at Eden Park, taking photos of their children from their seats. I however, remain deeply concerned about the financial connection between a company that promotes ultra-processed food and physical activity for children.