Frances Bain: Scotland must seize this moment

Our Walking for Health Manager makes the case for urgent investment in physical activity as Scotland plans its recovery from Covid-19.

Walkers joining Inverclyde Bothy on the Big Fit Walk in 2019

If someone had told me at the start of the year, that the Prime Minster and First Minster would be standing up on national television everyday and telling us all to go for a daily walk, I would have been absolutely delighted. As a physical activity professional, it would be exactly what we’ve been campaigning for, for years. Unfortunately the situation that led to this actually happening is far from one to be celebrated.

The pandemic has been devastating on so many levels but the increased profile and coverage of physical activity has been a faint glimmer of hope for those of us passionate about sharing and promoting it’s benefits. There have been reports of increased activity levels, particularly of walking, during lockdown and an intention by many to keep this up as we reemerge. We also know that this isn’t a benefit that is shared equally across society, those in more deprived areas and those with poorer health are least likely to have been active during the past 4 months. This, in addition to increases in social isolation and financial worries, paints a very bleak picture in terms of worsening health inequalities in Scotland.

As we start to invest in and plan for recovery, I would argue that there are very few policy areas that offer more value for money, impact and potential than physical activity. It’s role in preventing disease, not just significantly Covid-19 through increased immune function, but also the numerous other health conditions that threaten to over burden our NHS at a time where it is under extreme strain. Diabetes, obesity, stroke, heart disease, cancer, mental ill health are all prevented and managed by physical activity.

Investing in prevention allows us to future proof our health service, not just against a second wave of Covid-19 but also against a rising tide of long term conditions and preventable disease.

Physical activity also supports social and mental health through organised sport, group activity sessions or just by being out in nature and connecting with our communities. It positively impacts our productivity and reduces absenteeism, supporting economic recovery. The promotion of active travel is supporting people to get to work, while contributing to a reduction in transport emissions.

I believe that access to appropriate, low cost and person centered opportunities to be active everyday is a basic human right. Whether that is safe and accessible places to walk, local sports pitches to play on, provision of community exercise groups or affordable leisure centers. The challenges leisure centers are now facing are stark. The model of Leisure Trusts, where physical activity providers must generate income in order to survive, is not one which supports a healthy and equal society. Those activity programmes that target the most inactive and the most in need, in many cases are the least prioritised, as they generate little or no income for Leisure Trusts. Investment in local facilities needs to be a public health issue and it needs to be viewed as a population wide investment with huge returns, rather than an added extra or ‘nice’ to have.

I would challenge any policy maker or politician to find a policy area which is better value for money right now. Or find one which can provide proven and significant benefits to mental, social and physical health across the whole population, support the NHS in the short and long term, increase productivity and contribute to local economies, help fight climate change and connect our communities.

Now is the time to grasp that glimmer of hope that physical activity has provided us over the last four incredibly difficult, months. Now is the time for leaders, politicians and anyone who is in a position to, to fight for significant, long term and equalities driven investment in physical activity in Scotland. Because to be honest, we can’t afford not to.

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