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27 Jul 2020
Government reveals new obesity strategy – but where's the bit about gyms?
By Tom Walker
Government reveals new obesity strategy – but where's the bit about gyms?
The only item that refers to exercise is the pledge to give greater incentives for GPs to tackling excess weight – including the use of exercise referrals
Photo: Shutterstock.com/Motortion Films
Bans on meal deals, stricter rules on food advertising and printing calorie contents on menus are among the measures introduced in the government's new anti-obesity strategy – but there is little mentioning of gyms or exercise.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed the new strategy – called Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives – today (27 July).

All of the strategy's headline-grabbing measures are to do with making diets healthier – and include a ban on junk food adverts before 9pm, a review of the current traffic light labelling on food and consultation on whether to stop fast food adverts online altogether.

While there is no doubt that the measures, if implemented, will result in a radical change to the way food is marketed and advertised, the lack of detailed policy items relating to exercise and physical activity has been called "disappointing" and "counterintuitive" by some in the active leisure industry.

The only item that refers to exercise in a somewhat vague way is the pledge to give greater incentives for GPs to tackling excess weight – including the use of exercise referrals.

"Many GPs around the country can already refer people living with obesity to weight management services," the strategy reads.

"We will encourage local authorities to expand their provision and where these services are not available doctors can guide people to the free NHS 12-week plan, which we will develop and enhance over time drawing on new insights about what works."

In its response to the strategy, industry body ukactive called on the government to rethink its plans and to ensure physical activity has an "equal footing" with diet.

"We believe that this complex issue requires a cross-party, multi-agency strategy to be successful, extending far beyond the framework announced today," said ukactive CEO Huw Edwards.

"This strategy must place diet, mental health and physical activity on equal footing, backed by real investment, changes in taxation and regulatory reform for the physical activity sector that will help people to be more active.

"The are many facets of physical, mental, emotional, and social health that cannot be addressed through diet alone.

"Physical activity has a central role to play in obesity and weight management, as well as the overall improvement of health, happiness, quality of life, and economic prosperity.

"The Government has the opportunity, working with its agencies and the sector, to bring plans together in the coming weeks that harness the value of physical activity.

"We believe these plans should contain, as a minimum, four components.

"First, a new model to open school sport facilities as community hubs, during out-of-school times, for children and families. All main political parties should commit to taking this model to national scale as soon as possible, reaching more than 6,500 school facilities by 2022.

"Second, we feel that VAT relief and the continuation of the business rate holiday would help stimulate and revitalise our high streets and towns. In March, the chancellor announced a business rates holiday for the leisure sector for the rest of the financial year, and this measure should be extended beyond March 2021.

"A Workout from Work scheme, extending the Cycle to Work, should also be introduced, offering a wider array of opportunities and equipment, including fitness trackers and gym memberships. This would bring £240m in savings for the Treasury, through reduced NHS costs, improved workplace productivity, and reduced premature mortality.

"Lastly, we need to establish a more ambitious frontline preventative health system in which GPs can confidently use social prescribing services to offer patients physical activity to aid recovery and health in patients undergoing prehab, rehab or managing long-term health conditions."

Speaking to HCM, Mark Sesnan, CEO of leisure operator GLL questioned the lack of a joined-up approach, which would directly involve leisure facilities.

"While I welcome the launch of the Government’s obesity strategy, it seems counter-intuitive, when community leisure centres, gyms and pools across the UK are facing the biggest crisis in their history.

“The sector needs urgent financial support, similar to the package offered to the arts, to ensure that we don’t lose these crucial community facilities, which should be central to the fight against obesity.

“Many may never reopen following the four-month lockdown as they are unable to recoup the losses incurred.

"This will leave local communities with nowhere to exercise in a safe and supervised environment, particularly in the winter months when it’s dark & cold outside.

“Of course it will be the poorest in society who will lose out the most. Because they don’t have the financial resources to pay for an expensive private gym or personal trainer. Yet all research points to a clear connection between poverty and obesity.

“We are calling on central Government to take a more joined up approach and to link its new obesity strategy with public leisure facilities.

"They are already at the heart of the community, offer a range of ways to keep physically active and have qualified fitness experts onsite.

“There really is no need to reinvent the wheel. Using the facilities and expertise that is already in place is a no brainer; it’ll be more effective, easier to implement and cheaper in the long run.”

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