Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is the chair of the board for ukactive, an organisation set up to get more people, more active, more often. She is widely regarded as one of the UK’s most successful disabled athletes; during her career she won 16 Paralympic medals (11 of which were gold medals), and 6 medals in World Championships. As well as holding 30 world records, she also won the London Marathon 6 times. Today Baroness Grey-Thompson is a crossbench peer in the House of Lords, and over the last 8 years has actively campaigned for more women and disabled people to get active and/or participate in sport.
In this interview we speak to Baroness Grey-Thompson about how fitness facilities like gyms can get more of the population exercising on a regular basis.
What is ukactive doing to increase participation in physical activity?
ukactive are such a valuable organisation because they are interested in physical activity of any kind. It’s not just about sport, it’s about encouraging people to take up any exercise that is good for their health, be it walking, swimming, trampolining, cycling or a fitness class.
We work with many different partners to facilitate physical activity programmes with the goal of increasing the amount of people taking part. Our aim is simple; more people, more active, more often. It is becoming more and more recognised that failing to do any physical activity is a huge health risk; it doesn’t really matter what size you are, if you’re physically inactive you’re far more likely to have health problems. ukactive are keen to spread our message further and engage politicians and stakeholders across society, advising them on how to act to get more people active.
We also contribute to the evidence base of why being active is so important, and initiate groundbreaking research that will form solutions for the problems we face. Our Generation Inactive report stresses the importance of measuring fitness in children so that we know what needs to be done and develop interventions accordingly.
How are your strategic partners helping you to achieve this?
All of our strategic partners are either committed to physical activity as operators or equipment providers, or they are companies that recognise the huge importance of ensuring that physical activity levels increase. We all share the same mantra of getting more people, more active, more often.
Our partners have innovative and exciting ways to get people moving across the UK, and get a real kick from getting people healthier through exercise. In turn we can be a big source of help to drive their business and facilitate partnerships and meetings for them with politicians, policymakers or other organisations who they could benefit from working with.
What kind of things are ukactive doing to increase physical activity participation for disabled people in the UK?
At ukactive we work with many partners in the disability physical activity field, and support and encourage any programmes that aim to increase accessibility and inspire the participation of disabled people. An organisation close to my heart, and one ukactive work with closely, is Sports Leaders. They do some great work in getting young disabled people qualified through their programmes.
What can the likes of gyms and fitness studios do to attract more disabled people to their facilities?
It might sound obvious, but gyms have to make their facilities accessible and inviting for disabled people. They also need to make the effort to go out to communities and tell people that their gyms are accessible. Whether they hold taster sessions or free events, there are plenty of ways they can make it better known that their facilities are inclusive and welcoming to anyone and everyone.
Gyms can get an Inclusive Fitness Initiative mark which shows disabled people that their equipment is accessible, they have inclusive sporting classes, and that the staff and trainers at the gym are able to assist those with disabilities in a professional and knowledgeable way.
What other things could the Government be doing to increase people’s participation in physical activity?
The government needs to be doing a lot more. Recently we’ve heard much talk about the legacy from the Olympic and Paralympic games, and unfortunately it seems that sports participation has not risen as much as we would’ve liked. There are plenty of initiatives out there to get people more active, but the government needs to be more vocal in their support for these.
Public health is currently focusing on diet and nutrition, and is not adequately recognising that physical inactivity is a more dangerous health problem, and that it’s worsening. There is no simple answer to getting people more active, but there must be a concerted effort across the political spectrum to develop a strategy to solve it.
The government must invest more in getting people more active, and it’s not just about sport. There has been some interesting commentary about why the legacy of the Olympics has failed, but while we want to keep the calibre of elite athletes this country boasts and drive it even further, the ambition should be to get the 12.5 million people in England who fail to raise their heart rate for more than 30 minutes in a 28 day period active, and to sustain it.
What are some of the biggest challenges ukactive faces when trying to increase physical activity participation?
One of the challenges is simply how to get people moving more. There are many people who are already motivated to take part in physical activity, but unfortunately there are also many who do not, and don’t really understand the benefits it could have for them. I think the media’s focus on diet doesn’t help this, and many feel they are constantly being told what they should or shouldn’t eat. However, getting fit is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health. We need to find a way to share this with people across the UK – to get them excited about activity, and to improve their health and wellbeing..
Many health and fitness business cater to the ‘hardcore’ gym-goer. What kind of things can they do to increase participation from the wider public?
I think many are intimidated by gyms and see them as places that are only for people who are already ‘fit’. There are many reasons why people don’t go to gyms, including a lack of time, childcare duties, or being unsure of where to begin; and gyms could certainly work on their appeal to those who may not typically be inclined to go, and do more to address the reasons outlined above. Perhaps gyms could offer more beginner-focused classes that make exercise fun, or looking at how they can get whole families coming together to make it more of an outing. This would have the double advantage of engaging different generations in physical activity, and from a young age too.