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No wealth without health, says UK Active chief Huw Edwards

UK Active CEO, Huw Edwards, says ill health is holding back the economy – it cost the UK economy £150 billion in 2023
Getting inactive workers to be active could be worth up to £17bn to the UK economy
Obesity, musculoskeletal and mental health conditions are the biggest causes of workplace absenteeism
How we address this issue must now move from the fringes to the centre of the debate about our country’s future, said Edwards
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Economic growth will be a dominant political issue this year
– Huw Edwards, CEO, UK Active
Credit: UK Active

As the UK's political parties set their sights on the general election in 2024, UK Active CEO, Huw Edwards, says there can be no economic growth without better health in the population.

“Economic growth will be a dominant political issue this year," he said. "The issue of ill health among working-age people needs to be a national priority for the leaders of both political parties as they seek to form the next government.

“This is an unavoidable issue which either Prime Minister Sunak or Prime Minister Starmer must begin to address in 2024. We can no longer afford to accommodate our poor national health and how we address it must now move from the fringes to the centre of the debate about our country’s future,” said Edwards. "They need to undersand there will be no wealth without health."

Poor health among working-age people is becoming an increasing concern for policymakers. Last year, the Times Health Commission enaged research outfit Oxera to report on ill health among working-age people.

The study found it cost the UK economy £150bn a year in 2023 – equivalent to 7 per cent of GDP – representing an increase of 60 per cent in the past six years.

Almost one in five people aged between 16 and 64 reports having a work-limiting health issue, with a record 2.6 million now out of work due to long-term sickness. These issues also are growing in prevalence amongst 18- to 24-year-olds, with the number leaving full-time work due to sickness doubling in the last decade.

However, new Consumer Engagement Polling from ukactive and Savanta shows people are increasingly joining gyms to manage their health, as opposed to get fit, lose weight or look good. The survey showed motivations for taking out memberships vary between managing a health condition (55 per cent), improving mental health and wellbeing (78 per cent), improving confidence (75 per cent), and preventing illness and injuries.

“These areas of motivation directly match the headline public health issues we face as a nation,” says Edwards. “The green shoots of how we seek to improve our poor health lie in these instinctive motivations [to join a health club]. The government should harness this, working in partnership with the sport and physical activity sector, to help millions more people achieve their health goals.”

Edwards believes the health and fitness sector has never been fully recognised by governments and its potential has not been realised, saying: “A recent Deloitte report indicated that the potential economic benefit, in healthcare savings and increased productivity, of getting inactive workers to be active is worth up to £17bn to the UK.”

He calls for better integration of the sector with the NHS, addressing the long-term provision of swimming pools and leisure facilities, and reforming the tax and regulatory system that suppresses the expansion ambitions of the private sector.

Additionally, employers should be able to offer staff health club memberships, or home fitness equipment as a perk and then claim the costs against tax. There should be an overhaul of VAT to incentivise gym membership – as Ireland has done – and a reform of business rates to encourage more gyms, pools and fitness facilities to open.

“The prize is substantial, with savings of up to £1bn in healthcare spending alongside the generation of an additional £3.6bn per annum in GDP uplift through increased productivity,” says Edwards.

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As the UK's political parties set their sights on the general election in 2024, UK Active CEO, Huw Edwards, says there can be no economic growth without better health in the population.
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