It was with a wry smile bordering on utter disbelief that I read how Birmingham City Council is extending its “free” gym and swim scheme to take account of the post-Olympics stampede for fitness sessions.
A local councillor called Steve Bedser, who is the city’s health and wellbeing Cabinet member (bet you didn’t know we had one either) has been wetting himself at the prospect of unearthing the latest Mo Farah or Jess Ennis through the Be Active programme.
According to Bedders, we’ve been gripped by athletes battling it out for gold, silver and bronze, and indeed we have. “But there really is no substitute for participating in sport yourself,” adds Bedders. And indeed there isn’t.
“Summer is the ideal time to get out and about and get moving and Be Active is the best opportunity to feel the physical benefits, lose weight, get fitter and feel better.”
Go Bedders, go! I’m loving the motivation. Together, we can get to Rio for 2016. We can live forever!
Except we can’t. Because Be Active isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At least it isn’t if you happen to live in certain areas of the city, particularly those perceived as middle-class.
There are a number of council fitness centres near me, but Harborne is the most convenient. Ironically, Harborne’s USP – the fact it is brand new and no longer has plasters and matted hair floating in the pool – is also its downfall. The old pool and gym has been rebuilt and is managed by a private company, D C Leisure Management. This means Harborne is kind of a city council sports centre, but kind of isn’t.
Which makes for an interesting clash of ideologies as far as Be Active is concerned. ow, in short, can a health scheme with strong social ideals work in the free market? The answer is: not that well.
Be Active was launched as a scheme called Gym for Free in February 2008. Initially, nearly 100 people signed up in Ladywood but within six months the ranks had swelled to 7,000 and the programme was rolled out citywide. More than 350,000 Brummies are now signed up to one of Britain’s most forward-thinking public health drives.
The substantial costs of administering the project are borne by the city council and the local NHS, but the potential benefits are huge. Like they say, prevention is better than cure and if people exercise they are less likely to drop dead at a premature age. Similarly, they are more likely to stay in employment rather than becoming a drain on the welfare state. Exercise plays an important role in rehabilitation from physical injury but it also has proven benefits in combating social isolation and mental health problems, an area of medicine that is increasingly seen as a public health priority.
Some mental health conditions require medication for the safety of the patient and, in severe cases, for the protection of his or her family and society at large. Research is always disputed but there are strong indications that several debilitating mental health conditions, including depression, respond to exercise, sometimes in combination with drugs and other treatments like counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy.
So, exercise can help get some patients off the nation’s spiralling bill for Prozac, or at least allow them to cut down on the dosage, and it can extend people’s lives by combating life-threatening conditions such as obesity and heart disease.
Yes, it costs the taxpayer to subsidise exercise schemes like Be Active, but the potential savings, courtesy of a healthier, fitter, less depressed, less benefit-dependant population are massive. Happy, mobile citizens are productive.