OPINION: Could the coronavirus pandemic help spark a much-needed health and fitness revolution?

Activities like running and cycling have become more popular in lockdown. Picture: Ian Burt

Activities like running and cycling have become more popular in lockdown. Picture: Ian Burt

Will 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic spark a fresh look at how we keep the nation fit and active, asks David Powles?

There are likely to be very few positives to come out of 2020 - however there could be one which, if we capitalise on it properly, will have long-term benefits for the whole nation.

For this has been the year the importance of staying active, fit and healthy has been laid bare like never before and maybe one day we can look back and say it was a wake up call that transformed our long-held reputation as one of the least fit nations in Europe.

Before the pandemic it was a well known fact that an increasing number of hospital admissions and deaths were being linked to obesity or lack of physical activity. In 2019 alone, NHS figures showed that admissions to hospital where obesity was rated as the primary or secondary diagnosis rose by a staggering 15pc to more than 700,000.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks, it has become clear those suffering from conditions linked to weight and activity are more likely to suffer the most serious affects of coronavirus. This has been highlighted as one of many factors behind our covid fatality rate being amongst the highest in Europe.


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Will, once this is all over, this force us as a nation therefore to finally confront the problem head on and find a long-term solution to get as many people active and fit again? I sincerely hope so.

I’m hoping that some of this has already begun. It has been noticeable this year the sheer number of people who, faced with the fact they can’t do many of the activities they enjoy, have taken up ones they are still able to do.

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Running has seen a massive increase in participation, as has cycling and exercising from home, fuelled by positive role models such as Joe Wicks.

Running has been a massive part of my life in 2020 and given me an outlet to cope with the pressures of lockdown, being a parent of two young children and editor of this newspaper. I run to stay fit and because I enjoy it, but also I know that I run because at times it feels like the only way to free my mind completely and focus solely on the tarmac in front of me.

I’m sure this increase in participation will cross over to 2021 and go some way to help with our nation’s obesity problem - but to properly succeed it might not work if we just rely on the individual to take responsibility, some may need more of a hand than that.

I realise that I’m lucky on so many fronts, many of which give me the ability to stay fit. My wife and I can share childcare duties. If we’re in total lockdown I can get out in the back garden. And, if really need be, I’m also able to set up exercises and equipment in the spare room.

Similarly, the back garden, access to a big park nearby and a thriving sports community in the village we live, make it easier to ensure physical activity is a big part of our children’s lives. It’s no good the current adult generation getting fitter, if we don’t make it easier for future generations as well.

But what about those who are not so lucky? What about the single parent who doesn’t have access to childcare, doesn’t have a back garden or nearby park and doesn’t have the funds or free time to join a gym or sports club? How do we ensure those people, of which there will be hundreds of thousands all over the country, are able to maintain an active lifestyle?

With all the benefits getting on top of this issue would bring, I believe this is a core subject the government needs to tackle, using coronavirus as the impetus.

For starters, does there need to be a fresh look at how sports is provided in schools. When I was growing up it felt like sports and recreation was a major part of the school day. Not everyone liked it, but I’m sure that laid the foundation for the active lifestyle I have now.

And how do we give access to sport and recreation to all, no matter what their background or economic status? Could a system similar to free school meals be considered? Could families receive ‘sport and fitness’ vouchers to allow money off equipment or cheaper access to all gyms and leisure centres?

There will be many other ways to tackle this and these may not be the right answers, but it’s vital we start posing the question.

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