More than half of people who join a gym do so to tackle an illness and three-quarters find that keeping fit boosts their mental health, new research shows.
The findings come as hundreds of thousands of people across the UK join or rejoin a gym, swimming pool or leisure centre as part of a new year resolution to improve their fitness.
Survey findings commissioned by ukactive, which represents fitness operators, found that 55% of gym-goers felt their membership was important in helping them manage a short- or long-term health condition.
And more than three in four (78%) said that going to the gym has a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing, while two-thirds (66%) said they found that exercising helps them to sleep better.
“It’s clear that more people are seeing the true value of being active and its role in leading a fulfilling life,” said Huw Edwards, ukactive’s chief executive.
“It’s reassuring to see people getting such crucial benefits from physical activity and more are now seeing fitness and leisure facilities as places in the community that can really help them look after their health and wellbeing.”
About 10.3 million people in the UK belong to a gym. Early January usually sees a surge in people joining because they have decided to try to get fitter but not everyone keeps up the habit.
“Becoming more active and achieving a healthy weight is known to provide long-term benefits to people and their communities,” said Matthew Fagg, NHS England’s director for prevention and long-term conditions, responding to the findings.
The NHS uses physical activity as a key element of its programmes to help diabetics manage their condition, smokers to quit and the overweight to slim down, he added.
Edwards urged ministers to do more to support the fitness industry, especially with a record 2.6 million Britons currently unable to work because they are struggling with an illness.
Employers should be able to offer staff gym memberships or home fitness equipment as a perk and then claim the costs against tax, he said. He also called for an overhaul of VAT to incentivise gym membership – as Ireland has done – and a reform of business rates to encourage more gyms, pools and fitness facilities to open.
Andy Bell, the chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health thinktank, said: “Physical activity has been shown to benefit our mental health. And people living with a long-term physical health condition are twice as likely to have a mental health difficulty.
“But access to leisure facilities and green spaces isn’t equal, and people with the poorest mental health often have the least access to opportunities for physical activity.”
But David Minton, a leisure industry analyst, said that gyms are doing too little to attract more people not aged between 16 and 34, who are the group most likely to be a member. They should also target older people with high cholesterol or musculoskeletal problems, he said.
“As a species we are very poor at adopting simple behaviours that are proven to improve our healthy mobility. The fitness industry needs to adopt a fresh approach to both language and marketing to attract a wider audience,” he said.
“In January many new people will find a sense of purpose whilst improving their healthy mobility. The sector needs to convert these members and customers into fans and ambassadors by helping them achieve a more active lifestyle.”
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