Rising costs have resulted in much of the recreational and sports sectors having to re-evaluate their offerings. Operators facing spiralling energy costs have been forced to raise prices, with many considering further raises or closures in the next six months. Organisations like ukactive have made consistent calls to the government to save the sector and support physical activity and its benefits for the entire nation.
With the impact of the pandemic reducing activity levels in the last two years, we’ve seen returns to pre-pandemic levels. The size of the gym, health & fitness sectors had been rising steadily from 2016 to 2019, with club memberships to health and fitness clubs representing the second highest number after Germany.
So, how has the sector fared this year and what should we be looking out for in 2024?
Fitness in the UK
British people are underestimating the level of physical activity they need to live a healthy lifestyle. Yet despite this, adults are engaging in physical activity because of the benefits to their mental health. The UK represents the second largest health and fitness club sector in Europe, but only ranks 11th out of 15 comparable European countries for activity levels, meaning there is serious room for investment and improvement.
Children and young people’s mental health has seen a profound impact from lack of physical activity. The exercise and fitness sector, including organisations like AfPE and ukactive, has highlighted the importance of active lifestyles for this demographic. In 2023 alone, there were more than 21,000 referrals made for poor mental health amongst young people. This comes as PE and school sport has fallen 12% since the London Olympics.
With a general election on the cards and the possibility of a no-confidence vote in Rishi Sunak in 2024. The sector should be looking closely at the political leadership for who has the foresight to partner with the sector to prevent the mental, physical and economic damage of an unhealthy nation.
Supporting the UK’s operators and businesses
Rising energy costs have resulted in leaders from across the health, fitness and activities sectors advocating for greater levels of support. The Swimming Pool Support Fund was developed to help operators cope with costs and increase energy efficiency, yet this was a result of a failure to include these operators in a list of energy-intensive businesses requiring relief.
There have been increasing calls from the sector as to the importance of keeping the country active. ukactive has particularly highlighted how the sector could be used to bolster the NHS. Examples included MSK rehabilitation programmes and conditions that could be alleviated through healthier lifestyles and weight management. Using the sector could save the NHS an estimated 9.5 billion in illness prevention.
Producing safer, greener environments
There are obvious benefits to more active travel amongst the public. The National Audit Office (NAO) released a report showing that the UK was not on track to meeting its active travel goals. Government cuts, despite their commitment to boost cycle training for children, have meant that Bikeability has not been expanded appropriately to respond to ambitious active travel targets.
Yet, this year has seen a remarkable 461,877 children receiving Bikeability badges between April 2022 and March 2023. Hull, Leeds and Lancashire were amongst the top ten local authorities, with more than 70% of their year 6 pupils receiving badges. Not only were children engaging positively, showing greater levels of confidence and independence, but parents and guardians also conveyed greater levels of trust in independent school journeys with the advent of training.
Capitalising on the sector
There is clear support that utilising the activities sector to support children alongside health and fitness operators has various benefits, from better mental health and physical health to supporting illness prevention and management for people across the nation. Physical activity prescription is an important form of preventative medicine with a predicted saving of £9.5 billion.
In the commercial sector, a wellness platform called Gympass found that they could reduce employee healthcare costs by more than a third. In their research, those individuals who engaged in physical activity just five times a month reduced healthcare costs by 35%.
Into 2024, the eyes will be on the UK government as more and more operators consider unsustainable increases in services to cope with rising costs. As we move towards an election, which party will have the vision to work with the sector to reduce its workload? And how can we move proactively towards a healthier nation when costs are rising?
Keep an eye on our Resource Library, where we share how leaders of industry have navigated the sector. Not to mention keeping on top of the news that drives our sector!