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By Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Chair of ukactive

Personal health and fitness are back on the political agenda – I am only sad it took a global pandemic to get it there. Our nation’s planned recovery from Covid-19 promises to put health at its heart, from plans for an obesity strategy to talk of a wellbeing economy. But just as we seem ready to grow and learn from this traumatic year, I can see some familiar traps emerging.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated a new ambition to address obesity in our society, a major factor in hospitalisation and morbidity from Covid-19. His focus is of course welcome. But the first step in winning this battle is to acknowledge a critical truth: the most important intervention to tackle obesity is to recognise that there is no magic bullet. Obesity is a complex disease, influenced by a multitude of factors. Any strategy will require diet placed on an equal footing with mental health and physical activity. And we must remember that obesity is just one, albeit important, condition – cardiorespiratory fitness is at the crux.

We need a fundamental change in the way physical activity is valued by our political parties. While I recognise that the daily Covid-19 briefings have extolled the virtues of exercise in supporting our physical and mental health during these difficult months, that is not enough. It is why I felt compelled to make a personal appeal to Boris Johnson in June, with a letter calling for clarity on the reopening plan for fitness and leisure facilities.

The national debate over reopening indoor gyms and leisure centres has been passionate and emotive. As Chair of ukactive, I know this has been a harrowing period for our members, with facilities closed for nearly four months. Lost visits in 2020 are projected to reach 746 million. There will be a feeling of relief when we reopen again, but also anxiety as to how long it might take for footfall to return to normal. It will take time to understand fully the true cost of closure and the effect of this crisis – both for these facilities and the communities they serve.

Health and fitness must form the bedrock upon which our society rebuilds itself. By investing in our health, we will gain greater resilience in the face of the next spike or pandemic, and reduce its impact on the NHS. Not only that; our physical and mental health will influence our happiness and wellbeing, our ability to work, and how much we contribute to the communities we live in.

The Government knows that prevention is the key, but we will need a radical departure from what successive governments have deemed acceptable when it comes to provision. As we emerge from our economic and social closure, we must ask the big question, “What changes now?”

The economic value to the UK of the physical activity sector is £7.7bn, and it employs a passionate workforce of more than 400,000 people. Its social value, measured in terms of NHS savings and mental health benefits, is £3.3bn. It is proven to boost educational attainment and workplace productivity, as well as reducing anti-social behaviour and crime.

The stock of the sector should rise in the face of Covid-19. Before lockdown, gym workouts were consistently ranked as one of the nation’s most popular means of exercise, second only to walking. Alongside this, public leisure facilities are essential in reaching traditionally inactive populations, including BAME groups, older people, and women. They are particularly important for people from lower socio-economic groups, who are 18% less likely to be active than those from the most affluent groups.

In reopening, these facilities can play the lead role in both combatting Covid-19 through strengthening our immune systems, and supporting the long and complex rehabilitation people face from this virus.

This sector provides a national service to the nation, offering solutions to our greatest social challenges. The question for our major political parties now is will they truly acknowledge the questions that need to be asked, and the role physical activity has in answering them?

How do we improve the social fabric of our communities and unite them using a common aspiration? How do we open doors for our children and young people in a way that stimulates both mind and body? How do we transform the workplace with a step-change in wellbeing? And how do we reimagine ageing and life for those with long-term conditions?

ukactive proposes four key policies which would have a dramatic impact as part of the obesity strategy, strengthening preventative health measures by using physical activity alongside improved nutrition.

We must start this battle by focusing on the youngest in society, with a new model to open school sport facilities as community hubs for children and families – places where activity, healthy eating and wellbeing is supported by local community providers. With children and young people losing up to 74% of their cardiorespiratory fitness levels over the summer, our model proposes that by the time we host the Commonwealth Games in 2022, the Government has supported 7,000 school facilities to open, partnering with activity providers to reach 1.3 million children who need this most.

Through changes to regulation and taxation, we can get the whole nation moving more. Why is it easier to open a chicken shop than a gym? Gyms and leisure centres occupy Class D2 category buildings, whereas retail shops can occupy far more abundant Class A1 buildings on the high street. We must amend planning regulations to allow them to apply for ‘change of use’ more easily. Alongside this, business rate and VAT relief would help stimulate and revitalise our high streets and towns.

And we call on the Government to introduce a Workout from Work scheme which extends Cycle to Work to offer a wider array of opportunities and equipment, including fitness trackers and gym memberships. We estimate this would bring £240m in savings for the Treasury, through reduced NHS costs, improved workplace productivity and reduced premature mortality.

Finally, we need to save our public leisure facilities, or risk seeing them disappear forever as a major casualty of Covid-19. This requires urgent ring-fenced funding of £800m to help public leisure providers to reopen and survive the coming months, at a time when they have no statutory protection from the Government.

Beyond our political leaders, we – as individuals, parents, friends – have our own responsibility to champion health in our communities. We need a new contract between us and government for how we shape the health of the nation.

Today, I have written to the political leaders of the main parties to ask them to enter an honest dialogue on the future of our preventative health, and to recognise the extraordinary power and influence of sport and physical activity. There is an opportunity stemming from this awful crisis, to drive real and positive change – let’s grasp it.

This article was published by The Telegraph on Saturday 11 July 2020.