Martin Franklin: Why we must fight for group exercise

As I write this, gyms and leisure centres in certain areas of the UK are coming to the end of their first full week of re-opening. They have welcomed back millions of fitness users all wishing to exercise for physical and mental health.

Safety of the nation continues to be the number one priority and the sector has rejoiced at the news of the UK government acknowledging the safety procedures in place within our industry. In addition, the recognition of the role that exercise plays in maintaining the nations’ health and contributing towards the prevention and treatment of disease. Gyms and leisure facilities in England have seen more than 45 million visits since reopening in July, but only an overall rate of 0.99 cases per 100,000 visits, according to figures published by ukactive.

For those in tier three, the lack of group exercise is a major blow to the nation and our industry.  This decision to exclude group exercise has come as a shock given the COVID-safe protocols in place and its importance in the recovery of the sector. I, like many others including my colleagues at ukactive, CIMSPA and EMD UK, have huge concerns and disappointment at the current restrictions that will put millions at risk, especially women and older age groups.

COVID-safe protocols for group exercise, issued by governing bodies ukactive, CIMSPA and EMD UK, are some of the most stringent and controllable from any business sector in the prevention of the virus and this is showing up in the results. The guidance includes social distancing of at least 2 metres, ventilation with fresh (not recirculated) air, and rigorous cleaning schedules.

From what I have seen in all other countries across Europe where health clubs are open, group exercise classes have been recognised for the vital role they play in supporting physical activity. They have adapted to ensure that they are COVID safe by simply allowing them to operate with a maximum capacity quota, rather than not allowing them at all.

This raises valid questions as to why group exercise has been isolated when determining these restrictions? Especially considering the importance of this activity in the nation’s health and the role it plays for the industry’s recovery.

With 4.86 million people in England pre-Covid taking part in group exercise each week a significant proportion of UK residents who rely on this activity as a means of exercise for their health and wellbeing are impacted.

A recent Lancet publication also highlighted that the population prevalence of clinically significant levels of mental distress rose from 18.9% to 27.3% in April 2020, just one month into the UK lockdown. The greatest increases of mental distress were found in 18–24-year-olds, 25–34-year-olds, women, and people living with young children. NHS guidelines state that regular exercise can boost your mood if you have depression, and exercise is especially useful for people with mild to moderate depression.

I believe that the decision to exclude this key activity for the health and wellbeing of the highly qualified and skilled instructors, as well as the passionate and committed class participants, defies belief when this context is considered.  The data is clear and shows that group exercise plays a fundamental part in the nations’ recovery from COVID-19, both physically and mentally.

At Les Mills, we are dedicated to creating a fitter planet for all and this must represent accessible and inclusive exercise. I am, along with my colleagues at ukactive, CIMSPA and EMD UK, urging the government to quickly review the evidence and lift these restrictions.

About the Author:

This column was written by Martin Franklin, CEO for Europe at Les Mills International, who is a leading global authority figure on group exercise. 

Posted in Expert Opinion, Martin Franklin.