All Party Group considers how the health service can utilise sport

At a recent meeting in the House of Commons, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sport considered the importance of sport for maintaining and improving the nation’s health. The discussion was particularly timely – taking place at the same time as the Health and Social Care Bill was returned to a Public Bill Committee for further scrutiny by MPs – and focussed attention on the need for sport to be utilised more effectively by the health service as an important tool to combat ill health.

To host the discussion the Group joined forces with social enterprise MEND in the run up to National Childhood Obesity Week, which takes place between 4-11 July. Phil Veasey, Director of Strategic Partnerships at MEND, outlined his vision of how the sports sector can play a vital role in improving public health. “Sports clubs are at the heart of their communities and have the right facilities and resources to encourage people to become fitter, healthier and happier,” he said. “Local MEND delivery teams work really well with these clubs to maximise their impact in the local community. They have worked together to organise free swimming passes, gym trials and even taster sessions in new sports.”

He also referred to existing partnerships in place to encourage individuals into sport. “Currently six Aviva Premiership Rugby teams deliver MEND programmes in their local communities, and this is a great example of sports clubs driving forward positive change in public health. Now is the perfect time to work together with the sport sector to commission public services and create a lasting Olympic legacy.”

Anne Adams-King, Director of English Programmes for the Amateur Swimming Association, told MPs and Peers about the ASA’s work to establish a clear route for patients from the GP’s surgery to the swimming pool. The ‘Swim4Life’ establishes working relationships between ASA regional teams, pool operators and GP Practices, and actively seeks to build a stronger relationship with the medical profession to encourage doctors to recommend swimming. The programme ensures that GP Practices receive locally relevant information and helpful literature as well as template correspondence, enabling GPs to easily send a personalised letter to patients recommending a visit to their local pool.  Leaflets are also provided for display in GP surgeries to highlight the benefits of swimming.

Olympic Gold Medallist Duncan Goodhew also spoke to members about the importance of encouraging people to take to the water. “Swimming already plays a huge role in the sporting activity of the nation,” he told members. “It’s very popular with all ages, it’s fun and easily accessible. Most importantly, it can provide significant health and fitness benefits in just half an hour a week.” The champion swimmer also reminded Parliamentarians of their role in promoting positive initiatives designed to improve public health, saying that he hoped that "by working together with the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sport we can inspire more people to go swimming more often and make significant inroads into boosting levels of physical activity, ultimately improving the health of the nation.”

The ASA is now looking to form partnerships with GP consortia to ensure that swimming is specifically recommended to patients as an effective way to improve physical and mental wellbeing. However, in the context of local authority cutbacks, it is clear that boosting physical activity is dependent on a long-term commitment to retaining provision of sport and recreation opportunities; patients need access to facilities if they are to act on the recommendations of their GP.

A similar ‘medic-to-sport’ initiative has also been trialled elsewhere in the UK by the Rugby Football Union. In County Durham, a joint project with the NHS entitled ‘Fit2Ref’ aims to boost fitness levels in those aged between 40 and 65 through helping them to become rugby referees. The scheme is a further example of effective integration between sport and health, and early participation levels paint an encouraging picture.

The initiative, which has received £30,000 of investment over three years, relies on effective cooperation between the health service and local sport organisations. Patients identified through the NHS Health Check programme as being at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease can be referred to the scheme by their medical practitioners and are then attached to a club and given full training to enable them to get involved. Eligible participants are invited to complete an Entry Level Referee Award free of charge and receive the necessary kit. Once qualified they are offered fixtures to referee and can advance their skills with the support of the local Referee Society.

 “While the bulk of our intake comprises people who have had some connection with rugby in the past, twenty per cent have never played an active part in the game beyond being a spectator and a few are GP referrals,” says RFU North Referee Development Officer, Will Halford. “Everyone who joined the scheme is now actively refereeing a weekly basis, which is a major contribution to the game in the county. We have recruits from all parts of the age-group, with our oldest being 68. He’s a referee who has been tempted to increase his involvement by hearing about the scheme.”

The ‘Fit2Ref’ scheme is not the RFU’s only health initiative. The NHS Touch Rugby programme offers NHS staff opportunities to become more involved in rugby, including free taster sessions and support for NHS Trusts to run touch rugby leagues and link up with local clubs. In London, the project (known as Touch London) has been extended to cover all public sector workers and has received £115,000 from the Mayor’s 2012 Legacy Fund.

While these examples reveal a significant potential for a closer and mutually beneficial partnership of the sport and health sectors, there is a considerable way to go before the two are fully integrated. The extent of the challenge was highlighted by Dr William Bird, a practising GP and Director of the Physical Activity Alliance. “When you suggest sport and physical activity as a solution to health problems you get a muted response from the health service,” he said. “This isn’t right.” To make the case successfully, Dr Bird suggested, the cost-benefit analysis should be turned on its head. “We need to ask the question, where would we be without sport? It’s a difficult calculation, but not impossible.”