Our NHS is facing a ticking timebomb: Why gyms must be at the heart of our COVID-19 recovery

We know that lockdown has significantly impacted the nation’s health, and the burden on people’s physical and mental wellbeing will have a long-lasting effect on the NHS. So it is vital that we act now to reopen the nation’s gyms and help kick-start our recovery from COVID-19. Statement from our CEO, Steve Gray.

The Prime Minister is absolutely right to warn of the impacts of obesity, the second biggest coronavirus risk factor, at a time when more than quarter of UK adults are deemed clinically obese. Likewise, the impact of COVID-19 is often most severe in those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Yet physical activity among adults has fallen by a quarter during lockdown, with over two thirds of people concerned about the impact doing little or no exercise might have on their health. A recent poll by Yorkshire Cancer Research found that a third of adults had gained weight since restrictions were put in place – an average of 6lbs – while nearly half have consumed more alcohol. 

Additionally, one of the worst impacts of the lockdown has been on people’s mental health. The effect of poor mental health on physical illnesses is already estimated to cost the NHS at least £8 billion a year – and around 30 per cent of all people with a long-term physical health condition also have a mental health problem, most commonly depression or anxiety. This should serve as a stark warning for what is to come.

A recent survey we conducted found that 80% of people working from home in the UK now feel that lockdown has negatively impacted their mental health, while a quarter said they were finding it difficult to cope with the emotional challenges of isolation. As the UK’s largest healthcare charity, we see it as our purpose to help improve the nation’s health – now more than ever. 

Gyms and leisure centres clearly have a part to play in increasing the long-term health of the population, both physically and mentally. 

But on top of that, the NHS is also facing a ticking timebomb of recovering COVID-19 patients. Many of which will be left with lasting physical damage and scarring to their lungs, resulting in difficulty with breathing and mobility. We know this is a huge problem, which is why we are piloting a free programme to support the rehabilitation of COVID-19 patients, following their discharge from the NHS. We want to roll this out across the country at scale, so we can support patients significantly impacted by the virus. Nuffield Health is currently working with NHS hospitals to put this unique programme into practice, but to do this we need access to our network of gyms to enable face-to-face consultations with patients.

So, while the significant steps being put in place to reopen our economy and wider society on 4 July should be welcomed, we must also ask why our sector cannot follow the same processes – safely and responsibly. If pubs and restaurants can reopen while incorporating hygiene and safety restrictions, then so can the leisure industry.

We have been working with a medical and clinical task force to review all available evidence to ensure our sites operate safely for members and our workforce. This will include introducing social distancing markers to identify safe distances, perspex screen in reception to protect staff, increasing hand sanitising stations throughout the gym, reducing class sizes and providing wipepods to enable members to disinfect the equipment after use. PPE will be provided to staff when social distancing cannot be maintained and we are implementing deep cleaning overnight. Our fitness and wellbeing centres also work closely with our hospital teams, which have been providing additional capacity to the NHS, including treating Covid-19 patients. 

We would welcome the opportunity to see the evidence used to enable the safe reopening of the hospitality sector, and work closely with the Government to ensure we meet those same standards. We are willing and able to offer up our sites and infection prevention specialists to trial new operating models, to enable the safe reopening of our sector.

This Government is right to focus on public health as part of the nation’s recovery from COVID-19. But with a body of evidence pointing to the necessity of fitness for maintaining physical and mental health, swift and decisive action is needed to reopen these facilities and help our country begin to recover from this unprecedented crisis. 

Supporting the nation 

We launched our online resource hub to provide a number of free resources to support our members, patients and the wider community. Content includes workout videos, emotional wellbeing advice and support for parents and kids to keep them healthy and motivated. We also moved the majority of our health services online to ensure we could still support customers requiring physiotherapy and emotional wellbeing support.

Find out more about how we are building a healthier nation through our services and flagship programmes.

Last updated Thursday 25 June 2020

First published on Thursday 25 June 2020