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By Lord Andrew Lansley

‘You’re only as old as you feel’. Which is fine, if you feel young. If, like me, you sometimes feel your age and more, it is less comforting.

But it is true. And this week’s Life In Our Years report from ukactive offers us hope. Ability can trump age. Ageing does not inexorably mean a loss of fitness and strength. Older people can increase their fitness level to that of a person a decade younger by regular exercise.

Please don’t think I am the model for this. I am only just learning and working at this. I was prompted by recovery from cancer and losing three stone in weight. I knew my recovery demanded that I be fitter.

It takes effort and willpower. Tom Watson, Labour’s former deputy leader, has shown that in abundance as he lost eight stone and reversed his diabetes diagnosis.

COVID has made this harder. We are recommended 150 minutes-plus of moderate intensity physical activity a week but only 54% of adults over the age of 55 achieve these levels. Just over a third (34.4%) complete less than 30 minutes per week and are therefore classified as inactive. In lockdown last year, this fell by 1.3% among adults aged 55-74; and by 2.9% among those 75 and over, according to research by Sport England.

With COVID risk of severe illness and death rising with age, and with the  effects of  isolation and loneliness in lockdown, the health of our older population has never been so challenged.

Physical activity is, as Simon Stevens of NHS England called it, the “silver bullet”. Better than any treatment, it can not only increase fitness, it supports mobility, independence and puts “life in your years, not just years on your life”, as Mark Britnell of KPMG puts it.

ukactive’s report has listened to what older people themselves say about activity and ageing. It rightly concludes that it is time for a radical rethink. As we recover from COVID, we are all determined to start over and do better. Opportunities created for digital workouts can now be added to the return to fitness and leisure facilities. Building fitness and maintaining strength in the over-55s in work is a key benefit for employers to offer. Schemes like ‘Workout from Work’, based on the success of ‘Cycle to Work’, should be a part of a Government strategy to support the return and revival of the fitness and leisure industry, offering tax and regulatory reliefs, and securing positive returns to our economy and the exchequer.

The fitness and leisure sector has been battered by the lockdown, but it knows it has the chance now to be a key part of everyone’s effort to build back better, fitter, stronger and more resilient. More than 7,000 facilities and 189,000 dedicated staff will respond to this report in making on-site and online services accessible, affordable and welcoming to older people, both those who are returning to their regime and for those starting out or building up their strength again. What a moment when we can join parkrun again! How much do people want to rejoin their exercise classes? For many, me included, it will be a step-by-step gain, but it will be so much more achievable with and alongside the fitness training support which the sector can give.

As a former Health Secretary, no part of this is more important to me than the chance it gives to improve the nation’s health, to reduce pressures on the NHS and the social care services, and to reduce health inequalities. Those living in the most  deprived areas of our country on average live with a chronic illness from 19 years  earlier than those in the least deprived areas; this is a real levelling-up imperative! So, I ask that the Government should bring forward a Health Improvement Plan, to realise its manifesto goal to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 – and the healthy bit is the most important and realisable element, as physical activity so readily reduces the diseases which are so debilitating in older age.

Boris Johnson has both a personal and a political commitment to fulfil. It is his intention, after his dangerous encounter with COVID, to be a fitter, leaner PM. Good for him. But his Government now should make this a central objective, in partnership with the fitness and leisure sector, to extend that opportunity and benefit to all of us, as we grow older; putting more life in our years as much as putting years on our life.

To download a copy of ukactive’s Life In Our Years report, click here.