Spend on exercise and count the savings

Money invested in physical activity is not only effectively 'free' but over time it generates a surplus. Picture: Jon Savage
Money invested in physical activity is not only effectively 'free' but over time it generates a surplus. Picture: Jon Savage
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Investment in physical activity pays huge dividends, says Charles Winstanley

Now here’s an offer: a 360 per cent return on your investment, guaranteed.

No, it’s not part-ownership of a Ukrainian-themed restaurant in the Royal Mile, a stake in a llama breeding enterprise in Crammond, or a share of a mobile circus van based near the Meadows.

If you invest £9 million in this enterprise you get £32.5 million back over subsequent years; those figures use methodology from accountants Baker Tilley who were asked by Edinburgh Leisure in 2012 to quantify the financial benefit to Edinburgh of every local pound invested in physical activity. So, according to the model from these reputable accountants, money invested by the city in physical activity is not only effectively “free” but over time it generates a surplus.

Have we invented perpetual motion in funding public services? Of course not, but it is already known that regular exercise by individuals means less demand on public services. This study gives us the extent of the payback.

The NHS and social services are the unsurprising early beneficiaries, with obesity and poor mental health just two conditions that benefit from regular exercise. Hospital doctors tell me of acute situations from stroke recovery to frequent falling by the frail elderly where treatment is helped by regular exercise. Then there are benefits to employers with reduced sickness absence, and to criminal justice with fewer bored youngsters developing criminal habits. The list is a long one.

So you might imagine that the keepers of the public purse are queuing up to invest. Sadly not, and there are many reasons; a key one is that most public bodies only get excited about a “saving” if it is in the near term and for the body itself.

A busy NHS (and I write as recent chair of NHS Lothian) needs every penny to respond to the demands for treatment, treatment that forms the basis of performance measurement by funders. A-hah, I hear you say, but those demands would surely be diminished by investment in leisure services. Of course they would, but if you were seeking election which political theme would you choose: “vote for me and I will invest in acute services at your local hospital” or “vote for me and I will invest in preventative care so that in five years there will be less demand for acute services”? Hmm, tricky one that.

A welcome merging of city health and social care budgets and governance from next April could result in streamlined systems, particularly for older people. Edinburgh Leisure already runs targeted health programmes on a small scale, but this powerful new super budget offers the opportunity to invest in much more ambitious preventative programmes.

A related issue is the leisure facilities in our city schools. These community assets would ideally be available to the community outside school hours. Edinburgh Leisure has spent many years offering to work in close partnership, but such arrangements are said to be at odds with the business objectives of school heads.

Edinburgh Leisure recently highlighted the effect (from 2016) of proposed cutbacks, and this was widely covered in the media; in response the council issued a formal statement that committed it to keep all city leisure sites open in 2015. The council offered no such undertakings for 2016 onwards.

So what needs to happen? My view is that the Health and Social Care Partnership budget should provide a recurring amount for physical activity programmes via Edinburgh Leisure facilities. Or the council should maintain the current service payment to Edinburgh Leisure beyond 2015 and therefore the existing portfolio of leisure centres. It also makes sense to encourage a more joined-up approach to managing council-owned leisure assets (including schools) to give access to local communities, ideally using Edinburgh Leisure staff to supervise their use.

As I hand over the chair of Edinburgh Leisure, I hope the organisation continues to thrive and to contribute to keeping the people of Edinburgh active.

• Charles Winstanley completes his term as chair of Edinburgh Leisure in December 2014