Move NHS appointments to gyms and swimming pools to get patients back to work, former executive says

A record 2.6 million people are on long-term sick leave which is costing the economy around £150 billion each year - MARTIN BARRAUD
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NHS appointments should be moved from hospitals to gyms and swimming pools to get patients back to work, a former executive will tell healthcare leaders today.

The Government must “deploy” leisure centres to “save the NHS” and “turbocharge the economy”, former NHS leader Mike Farrar is expected to tell a conference in Westminster.

Patients with common conditions like obesity, diabetes and mental health issues, those being treated for cancer, as well as people undergoing physiotherapy or rehabilitation after surgery, could all benefit from appointments in leisure centres, he will argue.

Mr Farrar, who is now the chairman of UKactive, a not-for-profit body which represents the leisure activity sector, will tell leaders that Britain is “currently losing the battle for the nation’s health”.

A record 2.6 million people of working age are on long-term sick leave, according to the latest figures, which is costing the economy around £150 billion each year.

A tenth of the working-age population, about 4.5 million people, reportedly suffer from musculoskeletal conditions such as pain in the back, neck, arms and legs.

Former NHS leader Mike Farrar
Mr Farrar was the Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation and chaired the PwC Public Sector Health Board

Ministers announced plans to roll out “digital therapeutics”, or at-home exercise videos, for such conditions last year, which keep hundreds of thousands of Britons out of work.

But now they are being told to go further and integrate existing community services into patients’ care.

One such initiative is already being piloted at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London, where physiotherapy sessions are being moved out of hospitals and into local gyms.

It will run for 18 months and see tens of thousands of patients treated, half of whom are likely to be suffering from lower back pain, while others with arthritis and fibromyalgia will also be referred to the service to improve their fitness and muscle strength.

Trials have shown such measures could cut missed appointments by as much as 10 per cent.

UKactive has also launched a pilot to create “musculoskeletal health hubs” at 100 sites around Britain to help “reduce the burden” of preventable conditions on the NHS.

“We are currently losing the battle for the nation’s health, but it doesn’t have to be this way,” Mr Farrar will say, addressing leaders from the health, fitness and political sectors at the Active Uprising conference.

“I’m today calling on our party leaders, as a matter of urgency, to deploy the physical activity sector to help save the NHS and turbocharge the economy.

“The road to a better NHS, a healthier workforce and a happier Britain lies at the heart of every community – in our nation’s gyms, swimming pools and leisure centres.

“Physical activity is one of our best weapons in the battle with sickness and disease. The evidence is irrefutable – put physical activity in your strategy.”

Another initiative is Prehab4Cancer in Greater Manchester, which aims to help newly diagnosed cancer patients with treatment, after studies found survival rates are higher among those with better overall health and fitness.

Polling commissioned by UKactive revealed that more than a fifth of people with a health condition would prefer to manage it in a gym.

Mr Farrer will call on the government to 'deploy the physical activity sector to help save the NHS' - DRAZEN ZIGIC

Reasons given include convenience to attend, less distance to travel, feeling less daunted and more comfortable there, and not having to be treated in a clinical, hospital setting.

This rose to more than a third among under-35s and Mr Farrar is set to call on Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer to capitalise on the demand and prioritise health and the economy at the general election.

About four in five of respondents to the survey thought being physically active would help them avoid taking time off of work with sickness.

Mr Farrar will tell industry leaders there is “no growth without health” and will call for business rate reform and VAT relief for leisure operators, more funding for cycle-to-work schemes and gym subsidies, and a plan to reform community facilities.

UKactive is a not-for-profit organisation that does not receive core government funding.

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