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National Fitness Day

It’s National Fitness Day, a day to highlight the role physical activity plays across the UK. But this year’s campaign comes at a pivotal time when the government admits there are “stubbornly high levels of inactivity”, when gyms, swimming pools and leisure centres have struggled with running costs, and following further falls in the amount of PE and sport being offered in schools.
 
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has recently published a sport strategy – its first in eight years. It is vowing to drastically improve the nation’s health and fitness. “Recent years have seen unprecedented challenges for sport and our ability to be active,” says Lucy Frazer, DCMS secretary of state, referring to the pandemic and the cost of living crisis.
 
An “unapologetically ambitious” target of one million more adults and 2.5 million more children to be physically active by 2030 has been set as part of the government’s Get Active initiative. But more than a decade after the London 2012 Games promised to “inspire a generation”, how realistic is such an aim in such a timeframe, and how could it be achieved?
 
The latest figures certainly paint a worrying picture.
 
Some 25% of adults are currently deemed to be inactive in England, with more than 11 million doing less than 30 minutes of total activity in a week.
 
Just over 50% of children and young people are not meeting the chief medical officer’s guidance of at least 60 minutes of activity a day – with 30% doing less than 30 minutes a day.
 
According to the Sport and Recreation Alliance, the UK now ranks joint 12th out of 15 comparable European nations for levels of physical activity.
 
Meanwhile, NHS statistics from 2021-2022 indicate that almost a quarter of Year 6 children were obese in England, an increase of 3% from 2018-19. And last month, the government revealed there had been a fall of 4,000 hours of PE and sport in state-funded secondary schools in England in the last academic year, as well as a 12% drop since 2012. It is “a matter of immediate national concern”, according to the Youth Sport Trust.
 
So why does all this matter? The government estimates that every £1 spent on sport and physical activity generates almost £4 in return across health and wellbeing, strengthening communities and the economy. And that each year, active lifestyles prevent 900,000 cases of diabetes and 93,000 cases of dementia, a combined saving of £7bn to the UK economy.
 
As well as easing the strain on the NHS, it also recognises that physical activity helps tackle a range of social challenges, from loneliness and community division to unemployment and crime.
 
Ministers say they will establish a new cross-government national task force to ensure tackling inactivity “is at the forefront of its decision making”. It will also hold the sector to account. It is also promising a cross-departmental approach with more investment targeted at the most inactive groups, to make the sector more inclusive and welcoming to all, and a more strategic approach to facilities.
 
There will be a new targeted campaign to get children active, a review of school sport provision, and a new scheme designed to improve connections between schools and sports clubs. But it also warned that it was “up to the sector to come together and help make that change”.
 
So what do those who work trying to boost physical activity believe is the answer?
“There is lots within Get Active to be welcomed, it has the right intentions,” says Emily Robinson, the chief executive of London Sport – a charity that works to boost access to physical activity in the capital. “But crucially this strategy does not contain any new investment or details on how there will be more joined-up government working.”
 
She says more investment is needed from the government, as well as from elite sport. “Ten years on from London 2012, we know that inspiration is not enough – we need to make sure everyone has access to free and low-cost sporting opportunities.”
 
She says authorities must tackle the lack of qualified sports coaches and instructors, ensure swimming pools stay open, and that children of all backgrounds are able to learn to swim.
 
The government points to what it calls record investment of almost £400m in grassroots facilities.
 
But many in the sector believe that the time has come for the provision of physical activity to be upgraded, seen as an essential means of relieving the burden on the NHS. That would enable providers to apply for funding from the Department of Health and Social Care.
 
Last year, the House of Lords Sport and Recreation Committee recommended that responsibility for sports policy should move from the DCMS, with a new minister for sport, health and wellbeing as part of a “radical” shake-up of sports policy.
 
It also said PE should become a core national curriculum subject in schools and called for a new statutory requirement for local councils to provide and maintain facilities for physical activity, rather than leisure spending be treated as a discretionary part of budgets.
 
Such sentiments are echoed by the National Sector Partners Group, an umbrella body representing a host of physical activity organisations. It says relying on DCMS investment “will not fully realise the potential impact of [sport and physical activity] interventions”.
 
“Policy across health and education does not always align to promote physical activity.” It says: “In health policy, the Tackling Obesity strategy rightly places a strong focus on food and nutrition, but lacks sufficient acknowledgement of the important role of physical activity.”
 
Earlier this year, the government announced that schools in England would be required to deliver a minimum of two hours of PE per week and ensure equality of access to sport for girls and boys. More than £600m of funding is to be delivered over two academic years.
 
But others want more to be done, and more substance from ministers.
 
Ali Oliver, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, says there is “much to welcome”, but adds: “Achieving change of this scale will be challenging. Delivering on the 2030 target depends on raising awareness of the recommendation and instilling a determination to achieve it across these key audiences and the wider population.”
 
Huw Edwards, the chief executive of UK Active, the trade body for the physical activity sector, says the creation of a new task force within the strategy is welcome. But he says “It needs to be married with strong delivery plans, clear channels of investment coming into the sector, tax and regulatory reform, and the implementation of bold public health plans”.
 
“This is the moment sport and physical activity can deliver far beyond the limitations of its existing box and into supporting our health services and our economy,” he says.
 
Ian Braid, of DociaSport, which works with organisations to bring about social impact through sport, says “Time is against us.”
 
“Where’s the detail and how long will it take to be in the public domain?” he asks. “Consistent use of the word ‘sport’ is arguably a barrier to entry to many who see it as not for them. The infrastructure to enable individuals to be more active more often is under threat like never before.”
 
Meanwhile, independent think-tank the Centre for Social Justice has recently published its own report on the power of sport to transform lives. It calls for “an entirely new approach”, giving all secondary school pupils a “right to sport”, and bringing together government, schools, sport governing bodies, and community organisations.
 
“In a nation famous for inventing many of the world’s favourite sports, how can it be that Premier League footballers are bought and sold for tens of millions of pounds while local authorities spend an average of just £156 per young person?” it asks.
 
“Why is it that a nation that can proudly host elite international sporting events to the tune of £9bn allow its own, local, facilities, clubs and youth centres to fall into disrepair?”
 
Such debate comes at the end of another landmark summer for elite sport. One that will be remembered for Manchester City’s historic treble, a thrilling home Ashes series in both men’s and women’s cricket, the England Lionesses’ journey to the World Cup final, Britain’s best-ever medal tally at the World Athletics Championships and Glasgow’s hosting of the World Cycling Championships, among much more.
 
But the decade since London 2012 has proved that inspiration in the form of titles, medals and the staging of great events can only do so much.
 
Embedding physical activity as part of people’s lives, and harnessing such success to bring about a healthier and happier nation remains a challenge.
 
And as the country wrestles with record NHS waiting lists and continues to recover from the impact of the pandemic, the sense is that the need to do so has rarely been greater.