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How the fitness sector is fighting to be a central part of national recovery

In the last few years, there seems to have been a consensus in government as to the importance of health, wellbeing, and physical activity. Sustained investment in school sport and sporting facilities have signposted a change in government priorities.

For many onlookers, the approach has been piecemeal. Despite evidence that consumer demand for fitness solutions has increased, CEO of Gymbox, Marc Diaper has argued that the support available is not what it should be. Citing the reported 9bn on PPE and equipment procurement waste, he argued that the investment would have been better spent on cutting VAT for the fitness sector.

According to Rebecca Passmore, UK managing director at Pure Gym, consumer search analysis agrees. Searches throughout the pandemic for home gym equipment rose with many companies transitioned to online fitness programs. Research in January 2022 found that consumer searches for gyms had returned to 95% of their absolute volumes seen in January 2020.

The activities sector has eagerly awaited the ‘Levelling Up’, white paper. The focus examines many of the areas powered by the sector that have had positive outputs. Areas such as health, crime, sporting facilities, and education are prime areas for social prescribing. The inclusion indicates that they could be addressed in real terms in the context of the serious fault lines showcased by the pandemic.

Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, highlighted the lack of clarity as to the position of the sector in these future plans. He proposed:

“The Government must make clear what precise interventions it will make to encourage footfall back into city centers, which is vital for city-based fitness and leisure facilities, especially given the omission of bespoke support as part of the Plan B measures…”

A clear element had been a focus on educational attainment. The white paper; despite the clear necessity for physical education during restrictions, held no further clarity as to the role of the sector. According to the targets, 90% of primary school children must meet the expected standard in writing, reading, and maths by 2030. The lowest-performing areas are expected to increase this standard by at least a third, with the new investment made in both areas.

Whilst investment is of course key, creating a flexible blueprint is essential. Yet with investment and no focus, there is room to fall into those old traps that place huge pressure on teaching staff. The latest statistics show that a third of schools opted not to include physical activity, opting for the ease of academic subjects. Again, the risk is that the role of sport for academic goals may not be fully-realised or considered at all.

Similarly, the white paper sets targets for health and wellbeing. With the impact of COVID-19, it’s clear that a unique response is a better fit. Social prescribing is key. This would have fitness and activities organisations support community and health initiatives, an area that needs more support. Huw Edwards pointed out that this partnership should include the sector to help the country adapt to the new challenges. He said:

“This should include the Government – and specifically the Department of Health and Social Care, its agency the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – working with leaders in the sport and physical activity sector on plans that can build our national resilience ahead of next winter and any potential new variants so that we meet the next challenge as a fitter, stronger nation.”

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