Moving Bodies Across Medical Humanities and Sport and Exercise Sciences

Guest editors Cassandra Phoenix and Rebecca Olive introduce emergent perspectives on bringing medical humanities and sport and exercise sciences into conversation

It was over a decade ago, when a letter from Desmond O’Neill (2012) published in BMJ Opinion, noted the absence of discussion of sport at a recent medical humanities conference he had attended. O’Neill and colleagues restated this point in a subsequent paper published in Medical Humanities in 2016, noting “an almost total neglect of sport and exercise in literature of the humanities generally as well as that of the medical humanities” (111). They emphasised the value of being attentive to the role and significance of sport in doctors and medical students lives in the context of humanities, as this “could bear interesting fruit in terms of concepts of embodiment, philosophy, health promotion and insights into the struggles of life” (112).  

Enthusiasm for incorporating sport and exercise into medical education was reinforced by Roduit and Eichinger (2017), who suggested that participation in sport and exercise as part of medical curricula would aid students learning of anatomy and how the body feels, so they might better relate to experiences of injury, sickness and suffering, while also maintaining their own good health and providing opportunities to clear the mind. In this imagined learning experience, participation in sport and exercise becomes an essential part of encouraging academic reflection “in the same way a computer is a helpful and needed tool to write papers” (1).  

While a disciplinary focus on moving bodies and embodied experiences has continued to grow, as we enter 2024, the relative absence of sport — used in its broadest sense here to also include recreational exercise and physical activity — within medical humanities research remains.  

Finding Space for Dialogue 

Ideas about bodies and health that are often discussed in conceptual ways play out in real terms across a range of sport, exercise and physical activity settings. For instance, sex and gender are negotiated in the current structures of sport, which is organised in terms of sex binaries. This means that an individual must compete in either male or female sporting classifications. Advocating for the participation of intersex and trans* participants in elite sport requires navigating both cultural (e.g. gendered expectations) and physiological (e.g. understandings of testosterone and strength) constructions of sex/gender in the policies and politics of often-conservative sporting organisations. In this way, sport is regularly at the front line of contemporary politics of identity and inclusion. It thus offers a productive space where we can think and work. 

Connections across these two health-based fields might not seem immediately obvious to those assuming that Sport and Exercise Sciences (often shortened to ‘Sport Science/Studies’, but also termed ‘Kinesiology’ and ‘Movement Studies’) is simply concerned with skill acquisition and enhancing sport performance. However, like Medical Humanities, Sport and Exercise Sciences benefits from a diverse range of disciplines and approaches. For example, like many of our sport studies colleagues, both of us draw on research spanning anthropology, gender studies, history, geography, sociology, media studies, education, psychology, and the arts. What ties our work together is an interest in moving bodies in relation to other bodies (human and non-human), to spaces, and to culture, and what these relationships can teach us. In this understanding, ‘sport’ is a small word that represents versions of movement ranging from competitive to, active travel, to informal and nature-based practices, from elite Olympic/Paralympic to community or domestic contexts, from endurance events to micro-movements, from tai chi to e-sports, and more. 

This reflects the interests of our home departments at Durham University and the University of Queensland (Rebecca’s former institution), which include scholars in nutritional science, population health, physiology, psychology, biomechanics, political science, education, sociology, history, and geography. Such a multidisciplinary context will be familiar to medical humanities groups where membership is varied and might comprise of literary scholars, historians, theologists, psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, geographers, artists, and creative practitioners. In our experience, these multidisciplinary environments, when nurtured and supported effectively, lend themselves to cultivating an awareness of, even an affinity toward, the value of looking to and learning from different disciplines and fields of study. They advance complex understandings of bodies, movement, medicine, and health by creating conversations across theoretical and empirical differences, challenging the assumptions that underpin our work, while simultaneously highlighting how we are making significant contributions to public health. 

As scholars rooted within the academic study of Sport Sciences, our interests are less concerned with using the practice of sport or exercise to enhance experiences of medical education, as previously advocated by O’Neill and colleagues. Instead, we seek to understand how the fields of Sport and Exercise Sciences and the Medical Humanities can, and do, cross-fertilise to offer more nuanced understandings of moving bodies as they relate to experiences of health and wellbeing. Existing examples might include, Sparkes and Smith’s (2005) narrative research on men, sport, and spinal cord injury, or Hardes (2018) exploration of shifting attitude towards the role of exercise in the treatment of women’s emotional states and mental health.  

Inspired by our productive and supportive multidisciplinary institutional homes (both past and present), we have drawn inspiration from medical humanities approaches by integrating critical theories, methodologies and methods, with a focus on structural and cultural inequalities, exclusions, ethics, and power relations. We have also found alignment across topics where we share interests, including bodies, movement, health and wellbeing, illness, injury, medical encounters, healing, and more-than-human relations (to name a few). This has led to productive conversations with colleagues across groups including the Institute of Medical Humanities and Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences for Health (HASH) network.  

Making Connections 

Most recently, these discussions have been catalysed by activities within the Moving Bodies Lab, a core part of the Wellcome funded Discovery Research Platform for Medical Humanities at Durham University. In September 2023, the Lab hosted an online workshop ‘Medical Humanities and Sport and Exercise Sciences: An Invitation to Dialogue’ in collaboration with HASH. This series of articles published by The Polyphony are an outcome from the workshop, which included participants from the Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network, the Black Health and Humanities Network, the Women’s Marginalised Health Network (WoMaHN), and the International Society of Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health

Aligned with the ethos of entanglement, risk taking, and robust commitment to new forms of interdisciplinary collaboration akin to a critical medical humanities (Viney, Callard and Woods, 2015), the aim of the workshop was to draw out points of connection between Medical Humanities and Sport and Exercise Sciences by highlighting complementary work taking place across a range of topics including transitions, dis/ability, human-environmental health, dance, and healthy ageing. We invited two speakers on each topic, with one from each field. The discussions gave us a chance to think about how we can better speak with each other about the role of sport, exercise and moving bodies in understandings, practices and politics of health and wellbeing in the past, present and future. 

These dialogues were productive and inspiring, and reflected the generosity of speakers in both the work they shared as well as their willingness to navigate time zones. Several of the speakers and participants were able to write posts for this series in The Polyphony, in which they reflect on the dialogues they were able to engage in. In the coming days, you will have a chance to explore some of the ideas and intersections that emerged.

Inside the Takeover

Exploring intersections of movement and sexuality in experiences of menopause, Cassandra Phoenix & Marjolein de Boer find strong connections across the gender politics that characterise women’s and LGBTIQ people’s experiences of sport, bodies, health, and wellbeing, in which their experiences and actions are often dismissed or surveilled. The dialogue between Veronique Chance and Claire Warden illustrates how thinking about sport – running and professional wrestling – as a physical and artistic performance offers theoretical, methodological and creative opportunities to explore the tensions that emerge in sporting risk, injury and care. For Rebecca Olive and Clare Hickman, talking across their work in lifestyle sports and medical humanities respectively, revealed consistent questions about the continued dominance of the human/nature binary in how we understand the joys, risks and benefits of human-environmental health and wellbeing. Megan Girdwood explores the historical misunderstandings and diagnoses of women dancing as hysteria, and the inspiring possibilities for how it was and is a therapeutic movement practice and expression. Reflecting on the day, Emily Tupper proposes a sporting analogy for thinking about the cooperative, collaborative, playful approach of the day, and outlines some of the ways she found it to be a productive model of dialogue. Finally, from the intersection of medical humanities, environmental humanities and critical race studies, Arya Thampuran reflects on the empirical, theoretical, methodological, and political threads that emerged during the Dialogue, and emphasises the need for greater engagement with decolonial and Black issues, knowledges, scholarship, and activism.  

In addition to these writers, we thank Jessica Begon, Marianne Clark, Brett Smith, Elizabeth Stephens and Kristi Tredway for their presentations and their willingness to try out this format with us. We found the day – through the conception, organisation, and the day itself – highlighted how closely aligned our work is across these fields, even as these alignments offer tensions and provocations that allow for deeper critical thinking about bodies, movement, health, and wellbeing.  

It is a pleasure to share published versions of these conversations with you here at The Polyphony, and to promote the work of these interesting scholars. We also hope it prompts new conversations about the exciting conceptual, methodological and political possibilities of broader multidisciplinary discussions.  

This editorial is published as part of the ‘Medical Humanities and Sport and exercise Sciences: An Invitation to Dialogue’ takeover series, which is guest edited by Cassandra Phoenix and Rebecca Olive. 

About the Guest Editors 

Cassandra Phoenix is a Professor in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University. She leads the Moving Bodies Lab, as part of the Wellcome funded Discovery Research Platform for Medical Humanities. Cassandra’s research focuses on physical activity and human movement in relation to experiences of health and wellbeing across time and space. To date, this work has two key threads: ageing well across the life course with a focus on active mobilities, menopause and the socio-environmental contexts that shape these experiences; and connections between human health, wellbeing and natural environments by examining people’s engagement with blue and green spaces and the role of weather elements.  

Rebecca Olive is a Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University. Her research has focused on recreational nature-based sports and physical activities, including gender politics of women’s participation in surfing, and more recently on the role of sport in shaping people’s relationships to coasts and oceans. You can read more about her work on human-ocean health and wellbeing at the project website, Moving Oceans.  


Hardes, Jennifer. 2018. “Women, ‘madness’ and exercise.” Medical Humanities 44: 181-192. 

O’Neill, Desmond. 2012. “Bicycle helmets and the medical humanities.” BMJ Opinion. Online. Accessed on 20 October 2023.

O’Neill, Desmond, Elinor Jenkins, Rebecca Mawhinney, Ellen Cosgrave, Sarah O’Mahony, Clare Guest, and Hilary Moss. 2016. “Rethinking the medical in the medical humanities.” Medical Humanities 42: 109-114. 

Roduit, Johann, and Tobias Eichinger. 2017. “Sport as part of the medical humanities – why not?Swiss Medical Weekly. Accessed on 20 October 2023. 

Sparkes, Andrew, and B. Smith. 2005. “When narratives matter: men, sport, and spinal cord injury.” Medical Humanities 31: 81-88. 

Viney, William, Felicity Callard, and Angela Woods. 2015. “Critical medical humanities: Embracing entanglement, taking risks.” Medical Humanities 41: 2-7.

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