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ukactive update: Active lifestyles can save the NHS

As the NHS turns 70, ukactive’s head of public affairs, Huw Edwards, discusses the need for a new model – one that prioritises preventive healthcare

By Huw Edwards, ukactive | Published in Health Club Management 2018 issue 3
Kids’ activity providers can fight back against ‘unhealthy school holidays’ / Photograph: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
Kids’ activity providers can fight back against ‘unhealthy school holidays’ / Photograph: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
Moving towards a preventive health model is vital if we’re to ease the growing demand for health services

It feels like the NHS has been around forever, but this year commemorates its 70th birthday – making it younger than many of its patients. It’s showing its age, though, as it grapples with an ever-increasing demand for services from the UK’s ageing population.

The NHS faces huge challenges. In 1947, at its conception, half of UK citizens failed to reach 65. By 2040, over-65s will make up a quarter of the population. Meanwhile, mental health issues and chronic illnesses like diabetes and osteoporosis have skyrocketed, meaning the NHS now manages long-term conditions as much as it cures illnesses.

With this is a local authority funding issue – an issue that led Northamptonshire County Council to impose immediate spending controls – meaning much of the supporting infrastructure for the NHS, like care services and public health programmes, are under threat.

Policy priority
While social, technological and medical progress has ensured we’re leading longer lives, it has done little to help us lead healthier lifestyles. Moving towards a preventive health model is vital if we’re to ease the growing demand for health services and ease the pressure on the NHS. It’s also why policymakers must look long-term to build a sustainable health service.

There’s growing recognition of this fact in Westminster. Over 90 MPs called for a cross-party consensus to address the future of the NHS prior to the November Budget, with commentators such as Nick Timothy and Lord Saatchi calling for a Royal Commission to explore policy options.

The future success of the NHS will be dependent, in some part, on how we ensure people live healthier lives, not just longer ones. Policy really must reflect this.

An active partnership
The physical activity sector is central to this shift and we must champion the case for a preventative model of healthcare. The ukactive Summit last November gave clear directives to government and its agencies on the need for leadership to encourage healthy, active lifestyles. We’ll continue to drive this agenda in Westminster.

It is vital that our sector is ready and able to partner with government – proactively demonstrating the role we have in forming the preventive front-line for our stretched NHS. I expect the relationship between government and the physical activity sector to deepen considerably in the coming years.

Government has taken its first steps in the right direction, as the Department of Education announced a new programme of research and pilots aimed at tackling unhealthy school holidays. This is a real opportunity for kids’ activity providers to demonstrate the importance of their programmes, but more must be done. Unless we address childhood inactivity levels, we will continue to stockpile the health issues that place pressure on the NHS.

Looking long-term
On the NHS’s birthday, we should turn to a long-term approach – aligning government with an array of partners, including our sector, to prioritise keeping people out of hospital as well as treating them. This is the only way to ensure we have a true national health service for the next 70 years.

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'Moving towards a preventative health model is vital if we're to ease the growing demand for health services' – ukactive's Huw Edwards on the vital need for the government to partner with the fitness sector...
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