Chronic diseases of lifestyle (also known as non-communicable diseases of lifestyle or NCDs of lifestyle) present the single most important current and future health threat to both developed and developing nations. In the South African context, NCDs of lifestyle are a major health threat and are likely to become the most common cause of death in the population. These diseases are, to a large extent, caused by four behavioural risk factors, namely tobacco use, unhealthy diet, insufficient physical activity and the harmful use of alcohol, which are all pervasive aspects of economic transition, rapid urbanisation and 21st-century lifestyles. Physical inactivity is a particularly important risk factor, because it is highly prevalent, and has been shown to be associated with most NCDs of lifestyle. It is also known that the greatest effects of these diseases, and their risk factors, fall increasingly on low- and middle-income countries, and on poorer people within all countries, mirroring the underlying socio-economic determinants.
To address this problem, the University of Pretoria identified 'Sport, exercise medicine and lifestyle interventions for chronic disease' as one of its four main strategic niche areas for research activity in the next decade. This led to the establishment of the Institute for Sport, Exercise Medicine and Lifestyle Research, under the directorship of Prof Martin Schwellnus, in June 2015. The vision of the Institute is to be an international leader in scientific, translational research that promotes health and well-being in the population through lifestyle interventions, reduces exercise-related injuries and medical complications, and promotes sporting excellence on a platform characterised by world-class education, service delivery and the use of modern technology.
A key component of the Institute's research is a focus on the human being as a whole, within the context of society, through research activities that range from studying the human genome to conducting population-based epidemiological studies.
There are a number of researchers and research groups at UP that have been active in the fields of sport and exercise medicine, exercise and sports science, nutrition, physiotherapy, biokinetics and many other related or supporting fields, for a number of years. The Institute supports these researchers and research groups by fostering collaboration between the various faculties, institutes, centres and units with which they are affiliated. The objective is not only to support the existing complement of researchers at UP, but also to draw new researchers into the field and attract doctoral and post-doctoral students to the University. The research activities of the Institute also complement and expand existing post-graduate programmes by providing opportunities for master's, PhD and post-doctoral students to engage in the Institute's research areas through participating entities at UP, thereby promoting inclusivity and cross-pollination of research ideas and activities.