Physical inactivity is widespread in British society and causes serious levels of disease and disability; the scale of harm is similar to that of smoking.
Associated costs to the NHS amount to £1.48bn each year, and lose the overall UK economy £20bn annually.
In April, politicians across government joined forces to help get our nation moving. The all-party commission on physical activity set out clear recommendations to tackle this epidemic of inertia. Athletes including Paula Radcliffe, Mark Cavendish and Tanni Grey-Thompson supported urgent calls for a collaborative, cross-party approach to this crisis.
Neighbourhood Life is a new concept developed by Serco Leisure which encompasses health and wellbeing, community development, social engagement, and participation in sports. A recent six-month pilot commissioned by Sport England in four different regions of the country revealed some encouraging results, particularly with regard to mental wellbeing. Across the pilots, 16% of participants reported an improvement in mental wellbeing.
Q) What is the aim of Neighbourhood Life (NL)?
Our overarching aim is to target those who don’t participate in any physical activity at all. One of the most important aspects of this programme is to break down the barriers that prevent people from participating in physical activity by encouraging access to local leisure services, and to improving access not only to the facilities, but to participation, full stop.
Q) Can you describe your main areas of focus?
Well, this programme is centred around local needs, so we offered a different approach in each of the four pilot areas. This was arranged through consultation with various local groups – GPs, community centres, schools, all sorts of clubs and associations – and talking to individuals themselves, to find out what activities they would be most interested in trying out.
Our aim was to engage 1,000 people who don’t take part in any sports and bring them nearer to the chief medical officer’s guidelines for activity; we took those people from zero to 30 minutes of moving per week, and gave them the confidence to build on that.
Q) Where did the pilot schemes run, and how was that chosen?
The four trial regions were scattered across the country, and each have different barriers to people taking part in physical activity: Bolton, Market Harborough, Eastbourne and Wythenshawe in Manchester. We were keen to cover a wide range of situations in order to get broad results data. So we dealt with people in a rural setting, in a tough inner city area with socioeconomic challenges, a multi-cultural area and in a coastal town with a large ageing population.
Listening to local partners within these communities was critical to find out what needs they identified – whether that’s understanding rural isolation, or as in Manchester, understanding that some Asian women have no culture of exercise at all, so we needed to develop a bespoke programme to attract them.
Q) How is NL funded? And did you see any funding legacy from the Olympics?
Sport England has funded this initial pilot, but in the future, we anticipate securing wider funding streams. It seems that, sadly, there wasn’t much of an ‘Olympic bounce’ effect of greater participation in sports. The NL concept isn’t about elite sports and winning medals, but about better overall health and improved wellbeing. Many people genuinely feel that sports are not for them, they feel intimidated by the typical advertising of gyms and leisure centres – super-fit young people in skimpy Lycra. Our message was simple: come and try this out, you will feel better.
Q) So how did you persuade people who are clearly not confident gym users to get – and stay – involved?
The principle of ‘bespoke programmes’ for different populations gave rise to various strategies to get people to cross the threshold and make that first appointment. In Eastbourne we visited local slimming clubs to encourage participation in physical activity alongside healthy eating.. Spreading the word to those populations was hugely important too – encouraging people to visit with friends, and make it a social point of the week. To reach a set of young mothers, we set up Twitter and Facebook groups so they could keep in touch. We wanted to establish hubs to help reduce social isolation and increase community cohesion.
The principal NL offering to participants was six months’ discounted access to gym, swim and exercise classes of all kinds, for only £10 per month. Each of them had one-on-one support from a health and wellbeing coach, as well as regular health assessments so they could chart their own progress.
We invested in our coaches too, providing them with training in motivational techniques to help them get the most out of sometimes reluctant or underconfident participants. And to make prospect of coming to the gym as non-intimidating as possible, we created ‘taster’ classes that people could try out, before going on to join longer sessions. We also made sure that our information materials showed no skimpy Lycra at all!
Q) Why is it important to get more people more active more often?
There are dramatic health gains available in moving from no activity to just 30 minutes per week – this is the good news. But more than half of adults in the UK do not meet recommendations for physical activity, and the figures are even worse for children. Inactivity leads to about 37,000 premature deaths a year – something must be done to prevent a worsening epidemic of obesity and preventable diseases.
Q) There is some emphasis in the design of the NL programme upon mental health and stress – what headline results have you seen?
There’s a lot that we’re proud of in terms of the first analysis of NL’s pilot schemes. As a wellbeing programme, yes we were also concerned about the overall quality of life of these hard-to-reach groups. At the start, 43% reported poor mental health, high stress levels, and problems with sleeping. After just three months in NL, 16% were reporting improvements in rates of depression and insomnia.
We facilitated 13,000 visits to these pilot classes over six months, with 64% of participants deciding to sign up to ongoing activities after the trial was over. Don’t forget, these were completely inactive people, the majority of them overweight or obese and at ‘high risk’ of serious but preventable diseases. In the words of one of our participants from Market Harborough: “I’m now able to walk without my crutches, which feels amazing after almost three years! The support and encouragement from the instructors has really spurred me on. I’m even more determined to improve my fitness and my goal now is to take part in a charity race as soon as I am able.”
Q) What next for the NL programme?
Based on the success of the pilots, Serco Leisure will now roll out the Neighbourhood Life concept in all 70 leisure sites across the country. It has been proved that by supporting customers to increase regular participation in physical activity their health and wellbeing will significantly improve.
Case study: Learning from Finland
In the 1970s, Finland had the highest rate of heart disease in the world. Since then, the numbers dying from heart disease and lung cancer have dropped by about two-thirds, and life expectancy has risen by seven years. From the 1970s Finland experimented with a variety of innovative methods to increase levels of physical activity. Mass campaigns, competitions between towns to cut cholesterol, and changes in legislation were tested with success.The learning from this pilot was incorporated into the introduction of the 1980 Sports Act which placed heavy emphasis on ‘sports for all for fitness and health’. This act has since been revised and further policies launched which promote a wide range of activity opportunities and funding for the maintenance of an urban and rural environment which encourages active travel and leisure.
Case study: Neighbourhood Life participant
“Before I came here I was 21 stone 7 lbs, with cholesterol measured at 7.5. I decided I needed to do something as I have two wonderful grandchildren who I want to see grow up. I went on a strict diet and heard about the scheme. I now weigh 17 stone 9 lbs – a loss of 54lbs! I love coming here, it’s hard work but I have benefited so much. I am much more positive about the future, and healthier than I have ever been since my army days. I sleep better, my cholesterol is down to 4.2 and my blood pressure is back to normal. I now love life and this scheme has been the making of me… Do this scheme again, please - people need it!”