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£1bn plan to save the NHS by turning leisure centres into “preventative frontline”

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The future of the National Health Service (NHS) could be secured by investing £1bn in the UK’s ageing fleet of leisure centres – and utilising them to create a new “preventative frontline” against lifestyle diseases.

That’s the message from ukactive chair Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who wants the healthcare sector to adjust its focus from treating illnesses to promoting wellness.

The 11-time Paralympic champion has called for the government to implement a new strategy which would leverage cross-sector funding to transform a number of 1970s-era leisure centres into community wellness hubs.

Grey-Thompson said the hubs – which would combine swimming pools, gyms and sports halls with GP drop-in centres, libraries and police services – would create a network of “one-stop-shops for public services” and empower the public to take greater responsibility for leading a healthy lifestyle.

She added that having physical activity and health services located under one roof would make it easier for GPs to prescribe exercise plans for patients battling lifestyle conditions, signposting them towards wellness professionals while taking the load off of hospitals.

Grey-Thompson’s plan to renew the UK’s leisure stock forms part of a new report from ukactive, called Blueprint for an Active Britain: Milestone Review, which highlights how the NHS is under growing pressure to plug a £22bn funding gap by 2020.

The report estimates that 1,000 wellness hubs – if created over the next 10 years – could alleviate the pressure on the NHS by making people more active and help tackle lifestyle illnesses/

The move would also help redevelop the 2,000 ageing leisure centres currently in need of renewal, leading to net savings of up to £500m per year in operating costs alone.

Costing £10-15m, the new wellness hubs could be strategically placed in prime locations and absorb the capacity of two or even three outdated facilities.

“The level of investment needed for a radical overhaul of our leisure infrastructure is a drop in the ocean compared to the cost to the NHS of a full-blown inactivity epidemic,” Grey-Thompson said.

“It would help us prevent unhealthy habits from forming and move towards a health system that places emphasis on wellness over illness.”

“Inactive lifestyles are placing unprecedented strain on our health service and it’s vital that we take action now before we bankrupt the NHS.”

Steven Ward, ukactive executive director, added: “Strategic investment in community infrastructure enables major efficiency savings and can save the NHS by empowering people to take responsibility for their own health.

“For too long the NHS has shouldered the burden of society’s unhealthy lifestyles. Creating a network of wellness hubs will enable society to take responsibility for their lifestyle choices and reap the benefits of physical activity.”

As well as a call to rejuvenate the UK’s leisure centres, the Active Britain: Milestone Review makes a number of other recommendations in order to promote physical activity.

These include the appointment of a “chief built environment advisor” to ensure new building projects are designed with physical activity in mind and the expansion of the Cycle to Work Programme to include a broader range of activity offers.

Jane Duncan, president, The Royal Institute of British Architects, said: “The environment around us has a tremendous impact on how active we are. The right spaces ensure that people can engage with their communities in an active and healthy way. Poorly thought through spaces can put up barriers to healthy living that can be hard to take down.

“The RIBA believes that ukactive’s recommendation for a Chief Built Environment Advisor will help build on UK best practice to ensure that active design is central to how our communities develop into the future.”

To download and read the Blueprint for an Active Britain: Milestone Review report, click here for the ukactive website.

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The future of the National Health Service (NHS) could be secured by investing £1bn in the UK’s ageing fleet of leisure centres – and utilising them to create a new “preventative frontline” against lifestyle diseases.
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