Why don’t we just shift £100m from drug therapy to wellness therapy?” asked Sir Muir Gray at the recent ukactive Summit. When such a bold question is asked by someone like Gray – an eminent doctor, public health expert, creator of the NHS National Knowledge Service and chief knowledge officer for the Department of Health – it’s clear a seat at the top table of public health is within reach of the UK’s physical activity sector.
And Gray was firm in his commitment to this idea. “I’m involved in commissioning the NHS, NHS England CEO Simon Stevens is here this afternoon. Let’s do it,” he urged.
While £100m might be a drop in the ocean in the context of the overall NHS budget, the sentiment behind Gray’s comments drew loud applause from the crowd. And this wasn’t the only cause for positivity at the Summit: when Stevens stood up to make his keynote, he was also strongly in support of physical activity. Speaking of a wonder drug that’s effective against a wide range of mental and physical diseases, Stevens noted that, if available in pill form, it would “be a worldwide pharmaceutical blockbuster”. But, he clarified, the ‘drug’ is activity and exercise – “and it’s why the NHS has a deep vested interest in the activity sector’s success”.
He added: “The Academy of Royal Medical Colleges estimates that more than £18bn of headroom could be created in the NHS budget if we achieved serious improvements in physical activity across this country. That’s £18bn that would be spent wisely on new and modern treatments for conditions that could not have otherwise been prevented.” Prevention, it seems, is finally claiming its rightful place alongside treatment on the NHS agenda – and this is a hugely exciting opportunity for our sector.
So how do we prove our worth as a preventative health partner? At the Summit, ukactive chair Tanni Grey-Thompson called for £1bn to be invested in UK leisure centres, to turn them into a “preventative frontline” that can move us “from a health system that treats illness to one that supports wellness”. This could be our sector’s contribution to a sustainable NHS that empowers people to make healthy choices.
But we shouldn’t sit back and wait for this money to be made available. Individual operators also have a significant role to play in proving the contribution our sector can make, one project at a time – and Stevens’ speech touched on several key areas of opportunity.
Firstly, embrace a broader definition of exercise. As Stevens said: “It’s about going to the gym, but it’s also about walking the dog, vacuuming, lawn mowing, swimming and dancing” – so let’s track and reward all the activity our members do, anything that gets them moving more often, rather than focusing only on visits to our facilities.
Secondly, look at opportunities among new audiences: schools, corporates, commuters. What new services can you develop that will address the needs of these groups, and with it broaden your user base?
Thirdly, collaborate with GPs. Stevens highlighted a new Lancet study which found that simply adding a 30-second reminder about physical activity at the end of a GP consultation has a meaningful impact on health. Add to this the Royal College of General Practitioners’ recent decision to make physical activity and lifestyle a clinical priority for GPs for the next three years, and it’s clear the momentum is swinging our way. And it’s a huge opportunity – the public has some 300 million GP appointments each year – so approach your local surgery and ask how you can partner with them to signpost patients into activity.
There’s so much our sector can bring to the preventative health agenda. With the NHS now taking encouraging steps towards collaboration, it’s time to put words into action and prove our worth.