Simon Richards

Simon Richards works in Public Affairs with FleishmanHillard, and has worked on the All Party Commission on Physical Activity.

We’re told to expect the publication of the Conservative manifesto on Tuesday. As part of the process a number of Ministers will have put forward their ideas on physical activity to the powers-that-be. We wait for the result with baited breath, but don’t hold out any great hope.

Yet, sitting on the other side of the fence, the Labour Party, and Andy Burnham in particular, have moved full steam ahead with their physical activity agenda. Indeed, Labour’s health paper released earlier this year puts physical activity right at the heart of their health strategy. Their ’50 by 25’ is an ambitious but achievable target: they’ve said they will work with communities, businesses, councils and charities to get 50 per cent of the population active by 2025.

It’s worth reflecting on why we should be concentrating on this agenda. And to do that it’s important to look at both physical activity and sport.

This distinction is significant. The term ‘sport’ puts a lot of people off exercise in general. Indeed, Sport England’s phenomenally successful campaign, ‘This Girl Can’, is designed specifically with this in mind.

Physical activity has a number of benefits; it helps ensure a healthy and balanced lifestyle, it fights obesity and helps personal development – a 2013 Nike Inc. report pointed out that physically active children in the US gain as much as 40 per cent higher test results, are 15 per cent more likely to go to college, earn 7 per cent more throughout life, and have a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke in later life.

And then there’s sport.

Sport is not a dirty word, it too should be celebrated. It builds one standout benefit – teamwork. It strengthens confidence and allows people to gain skills which enable them to flourish in a team environment. As with so much of this agenda, that development is not just important for the game that’s being played, it’s important for the individual, the businesses they may be working for, and, through a trickle up effect, society as a whole. And, incidentally, we shouldn’t shy away from competitive sport in schools – it helps the next generation to build up vital life skills. Losing is no bad thing, it drives people to succeed.

So we need both physical activity and sport in our homes, our schools, our communities and our workplaces. The 2010-15 government made good strides in this area, most notably with the release of their physical activity paper ‘Moving more, living more’ last year.

But more can be done.

Here are four key policies the policy unit can write into the manifesto overnight to ensure the country builds on the momentum there is in this space:

  • We need a cross-government and cross-party physical activity working group to drive policy initiatives – this would be reviewed annually and its progress reassessed every 3 years.
  • We need a Minister responsible for activity, sitting in the Cabinet Office.
  • We need a national communications strategy, targeting people who are not active at the moment (there is no point giving planning permission for more gyms as this just gets fit people fitter).
  • We need physical activity to be formally evaluated in Ofsted reviews and for each school to be given specific funding for a specialist PE teacher.

What we don’t need is another consultation or report.

The All-Party Commission on Physical Activity (which I am proud to have been involved with) released its ‘Tackling Physical Inactivity – a Coordinated Approach’ report last year; the Chief Medical Officers of all four home countries released their report, ‘Start active, stay active’ in 2011. These reports, together with Public Health England’s ‘Everybody Active, Everyday’ and the Government’s ‘Moving More, Living More’, show that the research and consensus is there.

Now is the time for action.

Including the commitments above will help the Conservatives wrestle back the physical activity agenda from Andy Burnham. Activity is not seen as a significant priority but it should be. Speaking last year, Kevin Fenton, the Director of PHE, said “I don’t think people understand that physical activity is the miracle cure we’ve been waiting for”. Independent research has also found it could save the NHS billions of pounds.

But the intangible benefits are perhaps even more important – increasing physical activity levels would play a significant part in the well-being strategy the Prime Minister continues to develop, most notably with the new well-being and exercise centre in Sheffield. By helping to build self-esteem and psychological development, we can improve the morale of thousands, if not millions, of people.

The Conservatives have an opportunity to take hold of the physical activity agenda and make it theirs.

To those putting the final touches to the manifesto in the coming days – in the words of a certain brand – ‘just do it’.

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