It was concerning, if not entirely surprising, to read the warning from the Local Government Association last month that the government would “miss a chance to transform the nation’s health” if it didn’t provide more funding for leisure centres.
The association, which represents councils in England and Wales, says the government needs to stump up £400 million in the autumn budget to keep facilities up to standard – or risk them becoming “old and tired” because councils can’t afford to refurbish them.
£400 million sounds like a lot of money, at a time when there is less and less funds for just about everything. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, councils in England have seen their budgets shrink by around a quarter since 2010 – a total of around £15 billion across the country. I don’t ned to tell you that times are hard.
But I look at it this way. There is broad consensus nationally that one of the top priorities for spending in this country should be the NHS. Yet a huge amount of NHS money – more than £11 billion a year in England – is spent on conditions like type 2 diabetes and chronic bronchitis, which are linked to lifestyle choices like smoking, diet and exercise (or lack thereof).
Prevention has got to be better than cure – particularly when one looks at the costs. It is clearly better to avoid illness and discomfort altogether than to try to alleviate them once they have begun. The NHS already invests in initiatives aimed at improving health rather than curing illness, such as stop smoking schemes and walking groups, for precisely this reason.
“If the Government, particularly one that claims to be financially astute, switches from a short term perspective to taking the long view, then it will see that properly funding the nation’s leisure centres makes good financial sense because it will ease pressure on the NHS.”
The list of conditions linked to people being significantly overweight, which exercise helps to combat, is long and serious. Most of us know about the increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. But did you also know that being significantly overweight is linked with back pain, breast cancer, bowel cancer, uterine cancer, asthma, gallstones, osteoarthritis, liver disease, kidney disease and pregnancy complications?
There are other, subtler negative effects on one’s quality of life too. Being excessively overweight can make even ordinary exertion, such as running around with the kids or walking any distance, difficult. Rightly or wrongly, it can affect a person’s self-esteem and contribute to mental health conditions such as depression – exercise, on the other hand, is proven to improve mood and mental health. Plus, it stands to reason that the more you exercise, the fitter you’ll be, and the better able you’ll be to fight off any health problems when they do come along. A retired friend of mine, who normally walks anywhere between five and ten miles every day, had a knee replacement last year – a big operation. Thanks to his level of fitness, combined with his determination , he was back on his feet, albeit with less than his usual speed and gusto, after about a week.
Now, it’s certainly true that leisure centres are far from being the only opportunity for exercise. Walking, for example, is the activity the KM Charity Team encourages through its walk-to-school schemes, the walking buses and Active Wow. My charity encourages children to walk, cycle or scoot to school by turning it into a competition – classes compete with each other to see who can be the greenest, and there are prizes, trophies and stickers galore on offer. And, although we’re a children’s charity, we’re just as keen on encouraging adults to get active – every year we stage the KM Charity Walk – a 10-mile stroll through the lovely Kent countryside, a colour run and a 50km or 100km cycle ride, all of which raise money for participants’ chosen charities. For those who want to test their physical strength even further, there’s an army-style assault course.
These forms of exercise have several huge advantages. They’re doable by almost anyone, whatever their build or natural aptitude – some people are just not built to run, or will never be any good at football, but almost everyone can walk. They take place in the fresh air – and if you take a walk in the countryside, you’ll see some beautiful scenery and wildlife. We’re blessed with some truly stunning countryside here in the south east, but that’s true across most of the country. And they’re easy to incorporate into the rest of your life – if you like walking or cycling to school, you might decide to start walking or cycling to the shops or the cinema too, and realise that you actually prefer it to being in the car.
“If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented.”
But there are so many other forms of exercise that exist too – all with slightly different physical and mental benefits – and it’s only right that children should have the opportunity to try as many of them as possible, so they can find the one that they will fall in love with. Some people, like my friend, love the gentleness and peacefulness of walking and go every day. But others look for something different – the strength and power that comes through boxing, the competitiveness and team spirit of football or cricket, the liberation of dancing, the peacefulness of swimming, the personal challenge of athletics. Every child is different, and every child deserves the chance to find the physical activity that will become their passion.
Plus, sports are often a lifeline for children who are not academically or creatively gifted, because physical ability is where they can excel. And in an age when children are tested by the government even in primary school, and coached for the eleven-plus in grammar school areas, this is more important than ever. Equally, children who are academically or creatively gifted often need a release from their studies – not only because the latter years of school can be quite pressurised, but because it’s helpful for those children to know that being good at more cerebral pursuits doesn’t mean that’s the only thing they can do. However smart and successful they are in their exams, children usually like to feel that they’re more than just a string of As – sport can help provide the necessary reassurance that academia isn’t all there is to life, or all there is to them.
If the Government, particularly one that claims to be financially astute, switches from a short term perspective to taking the long view, then it will see that properly funding the nation’s leisure centres makes good financial sense because it will ease pressure on the NHS.
I’ll leave the last word with health promotion consultant Dr Nick Cavill: “If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented.” I hope the Chancellor agrees and uses his budget to take action.