Active Britain: The Movement All Parties Must Get Behind

05/05/2017 17:02 BST | Updated 05/05/2017 17:02 BST
Tom Dulat via Getty Images

With the biggest election of a generation suddenly upon us, we can doubtless expect to hear much on the burning issues of modern society over the coming weeks.

The NHS, an ageing society, mental health, social cohesion, the economy and the impact of Brexit will no doubt be key themes for many throughout the upcoming period.

The one topic no-one is yet talking about holds many of the answers to these pressing challenges: Physical activity.

Dubbed the 'miracle cure' by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, physical activity has the power to transform our health, communities and our economy.

With cross-party support for getting more people, more active, more often, we can build a healthy, successful, productive and vibrant Britain which will be better equipped to face the challenges of the near future.

The potential rewards of an Active Britain are huge. But if we fail to act now, the consequences will be disastrous.

Modern living has stripped activity from our daily lives, leaving Britain in the grip of an unprecedented physical inactivity crisis.

Across our schools, workplaces, homes and hospitals, physical inactivity is taking a toxic toll on society. Physical inactivity costs the UK economy an estimated £20bn each year and causes one in six deaths.

Every day, husbands, wives, parents and grandparents are dying because they live in a society that doesn't value physical activity highly enough. This has to stop.

Through a series of simple policies - as outlined in my organisation ukactive's Manifesto for an Active Britain - we can create a happier, healthier nation, with physical activity embedded into our daily lives from cradle to grave. This requires radical and bold decisions which will debate and challenge the current approach to physical activity across all ages.

The first place to start is with young people. Today's children are the least active ever and we need a serious shake-up of the school day if we are to save Generation Inactive from consequent damage to their physical development, attention span and academic performance.

It's not just a case of buying more bats and balls for the PE cupboard, we have to embrace creative solutions. That's why there should be a commitment to the regular measurement of children's activity levels - as we do with all other subjects - to measure progress and ensure that those children falling behind receive extra support.

Furthermore, why not roll out active mile schemes across the country, as a sure-fire way to ensure children are moving every day?

And better still, let's use money from the sugar tax to open up schools as summer camps so that all children - particularly the most deprived - have access to free activity sessions and healthy meals.

Shaking up our schools is a great start, but our workplaces need equal attention if we are to support the economy

The toxic toll of sedentary office culture is wreaking havoc on our workers' health. Many workers struggle to fit exercise into their busy working days, leading to higher rates of absenteeism (which costs the UK £29bn a year) and reduced productivity across the workforce. Now is the perfect time to spark a sea change with some sensible policies to boost the wellbeing of our workforce.

Why not support businesses (and not just the big ones) by making it easier for them to offer employee benefits such as gym memberships? The Treasury could broaden the hugely successful cycle to work salary sacrifice scheme - estimated to have saved £5.1bn through health benefits accrued through participation - to encompass gym passes, fitness products and accessories.

It goes without saying that active schools and workplaces will bring huge physical and mental health benefits, but it's the societal impact of physical activity which is often overlooked.

By putting physical activity at the heart of community infrastructure, we can empower society to lead more active lifestyles.

This should be spearheaded by a £1bn regeneration scheme to transform the UK's ageing fleet of leisure centres into new community wellness hubs that can serve as the preventative frontline of the NHS.

ukactive chair Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson on The Daily Politics, BBC 2 from ukactive on Vimeo.

These wellness hubs combine swimming pools, gyms and sports halls, with GP drop-in centres, libraries and police services, to create a one-stop-shop for public services.

With borrowing costs at an all-time low, now is the perfect opportunity to invest in our future. Transforming our infrastructure to inspire movement can catalyse the cultural shift needed to inspire a more active Britain and save the NHS from bankruptcy.

There will be plenty to debate over the next five weeks as we head towards June 8th and a vote that will change the future of the country irrevocably. But beyond politics, this general election offers the unique opportunity for all of our parties to pledge commitment to an Active Britain, with physical activity as its beating heart. The health of our nation depends on it.