Malham Close, Beaumont Leys, adjacent to Barleycroft School

It’s about a national strategy for physical activity ....... it’s not about gyms

Posted: Mon, 18 Jan 2021 19:40

It’s about a national strategy for physical activity ....... it’s not about gyms

As we enter a new year it seems quite staggering that we've been living with the disruption of the virus for almost 12 months.

The whole of my working life has been spent in sports and leisure facilities - buildings for people to travel to so they can exercise. The economic effect upon that part of our landscape has been considerable. Some facilities and some organisations will not survive this pandemic event.

However, and at the risk of disloyalty to the places that have been my life for over 30 years, those leisure centres, gyms and studios satisfy the needs of around 15% of the population. The importance of those facilities to those regular participants of course is significant and their closure during the restrictive periods will have had a profound effect upon many of them.

Their contribution to the economy is also significant and equally important is the social value that they create; £4 for every £1 spent according to a study undertaken by Sheffield Hallam University. Of course, that social value is only being generated by 15% of the population; and so crudely, what is the potential contribution if more people participated more regularly?

To build a policy call around 15% of the nation, however, seems ill-conceived. The facts are that damaging to the facility operators in the commercial, public, and charitable sectors events may have been, the challenge is not to drive more and more people into facilities. The health of our communities will be determined by how effective the whole physical activity and sport eco-system is in aggregating its effort and elevating the value of exercise into the consciousness of our nation.

Try as we might over the course of the last twenty years, participation in regular exercise in facilities, has not had a transformational effect upon overall participation across the UK. Despite quality being better, despite capacity increasing (more facilities) and despite the cost of 'fitness' never being cheaper, increases in participation have been marginal.

Churn rates remain largely unchanged – say 5% per month – that's losing 60% of that 15% of the population every year. Some, of course, re-start, and others, just like they have during the pandemic, have found other things to do. They've invested in home exercise equipment or they've cycled, or they've run, or they've responded to the plethora of digital content that is now available.

Facility operators report the loss of say between 20% and 40% of their members because of the pandemic; some will return, and like those who've retained their commitment, they place a high value on the facilities they use, the service they receive and the people – staff and customers – with whom they interact. Others will not.

Two further observations; firstly, the facility stock that exists across the UK was not operating at capacity before the pandemic – of course some were, and some parts of facilities were exceedingly busy some of the time, and secondly, we know that gym membership correlates strongly to the more advantaged socio-economic groups.

So, to be personal, immensely proud as I am of my career; I think I've transformed many facilities, I've innovated, I've improved customer experience, increased participation and I've inspired colleagues, I've not really 'pushed the needle' very far. In fact, health inequalities have disappointingly remained the same and to paraphrase, we're perfectly formed for the results we get.

It could be that the consequence of events is that maybe 20% - 40% of facilities across the UK close – well maybe that is a consequence that could be good for us! Now, please do not misunderstand; I passionately believe that sports and fitness facilities are an essential part of the fabric of our communities and a critical part of the future health of the nation. It's just that they're not the whole part.

Our physical activity and sport eco-system will thrive and prosper ONLY if we can promote more effectively, the rich diversity of opportunity that exists and find new and innovative ways to engage more people in our communities.

What if the savings in not operating say 30% of that facility stock could be re-invested in other ways?

  • In re-imagining and re-purposing the remaining facilities so that they had wider appeal.
  • In up-skilling or re-skilling the enthusiasts and empathisers in our workforce to deliver different and improved services to our communities.
  • In improving the digital connectivity of our communities so that they could be inspired, motivated or nudged along the behavioural change journey.
  • In encouraging the greater use of open space for 'free' activity or 'led' activity.
  • In supporting and exploiting the passion and energy that exists within voluntary sports clubs.
  • In thinking about the whole system as a contributor to physical activity connecting health care, social care, education and travel with the physical activity and sport landscape, so that moving about more was available to more, understood by more and ultimately became a habitual part of more people's lives.

If our focus was on elevating the value of exercise in the minds of our communities, and we promoted the depth and breadth of opportunity that exists to be physically active, then I am certain that our society would thrive and that would include the facility assets that would be cherished by even more.

John Oxley

Tags: Featured, Leisure, Local Government, Policy, Sport, Sport England, Sport and Development, Sport for development, school sport

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