The Blog

There's One Activity That Really Could Save The NHS

'Save our NHS'. It is a slogan rarely out of the headlines and a sentiment we can, and should, all get behind. Our fantastic and beloved health service is in trouble - around £900,000,000 worth of trouble to be exact - and something needs to be done about it.

This is by no means a revelation. The growing NHS deficit, coupled with constant reports of professionals and resources stretched to breaking point, has been the subject of scrutiny for some time and is a dilemma for which countless solutions have been put forward, most recently a proposed increase in National Insurance or Income Tax contributions.

It's actually these latest proposals which have given me greatest pause for thought. According to opinion polls, the majority of us (around 53%) back this suggestion and we are apparently more than happy to put our hands in our pockets to release funds which might relieve the crippling pressure our various health services are under. In a climate of economic uncertainty, increasing levels of financial hardship and so many other daily challenges, we are willing to spend a little more to help the NHS.

It's admirable, but ultimately a temporary sticking plaster on a wound that is only going to get bigger. The Office of Budget Responsibility recently released a report which suggests that Britain's ageing population will cost the UK £30 billion every decade in increased NHS, pensions and social care costs over the next 50 years. Health expenditure per capita in England has been rising year on year and it is only going to increase.

But 'temporary fix' argument aside, there's another reason why increasing public financial contributions isn't the answer. It isn't necessary. At least, it wouldn't be if we were all equally supportive of another solution - boosting our own activity levels and taking greater responsibility for our health and wellbeing.

I find myself asking, what difference would it make if all those willing to spend more money were equally willing to spend time - time to make physical activity a bigger part of daily life by walking to work or using the stairs rather than the lift; time to try out different sports or leisure activities that get whole families moving. What if we all made that effort? Such is the state of public health and the financial straits of our NHS that I feel finding out the answer is no longer an option, it is a necessity. If you have no time for physical activity then you will have to find time for ill health!

Inactivity costs the NHS around 20 billion per year and, according to new research, our current generation of children are the least active generation of all time due to a mix of factors including less PE in schools and swapping traditional activities (such as football in the park, bike riding and general outdoor play) for unprecedented 'screen time' - on average our kids are spending around 5.15 hours in front of screens every day outside of school hours.

We are also eating ourselves into a bigger budget deficit. According to Public Health England (using information from the Health Survey for England), almost two thirds of adults are overweight or obese. Almost a third of children aged between 2 and 15 fall into this category. It's pretty shocking, particularly when you consider that in 2014/15 NHS England spent £5.1billion on overweight and obesity-related ill-health.

The fact that these figures are in our power to change surely means that helping people to become more active has to become a priority?

It's certainly an opinion held by health organisations in Stockport. Staff from NHS Stockport CCG, Stockport NHS Foundation Trust and Stockport Council have recently signed up to an initiative - which combines wearable technology (fitness trackers), an online interactive programme and remote coaching to help people become more active - in order to boost their own health and fitness and, in the process, help them better promote active living to the public. They are quite literally practicing what they preach. I am extremely proud of our NHS partners in Stockport for pioneering this approach.

It's also an ambition shared by leading doctor and former NHS chief knowledge office Sir Muir Gray who recently said that preventable conditions linked to lifestyle had reached near-epidemic levels and that we should now focus on giving activity therapy - so called "wellness prescriptions" - to patients rather than pills i.e. the advice and support to make themselves better.

The word 'support' is important here. I'm not saying that changing ingrained habits is easy - it would be incredibly condescending and arrogant of me, of anyone, to simply say "come on folks, snap out of it and get yourself in gear. Do that and we're sorted."

People do need help to make changes and we need to make sure the frameworks are in place to make that possible. As the CEO of a Leisure Trust, I for one am supportive of UKActive's stance that while focusing on curing illness might topple the NHS, focussing on establishing community wellness hubs (which bring together different grassroots leisure and lifestyle organisations to help people look at their health holistically) could save it.

But ultimately even the most comprehensive support mechanisms in the world won't work until people understand that change really is within their power. With that in mind I'd like to ask a favour. Next time you see a 'Save our NHS' slogan or hear about a new campaign, think about the little lifestyle changes you can make that could help solve the problem. If you can't save yourself you are not going to save the NHS.