Practice What You Preach?

This blog is by way of an open letter to gyms and health clubs. It arises from discussions that began at an event I attended recently, and which have carried on since. The event concerned health and social care services.

Now, I make few bones about it. I’m 59, and despite my occasionally troublesome mental health, documented occasionally in this series of blogs, I’m far fitter and healthier than most men of my age. Whether that is genes, hard work or (proper) good living, or a combination of the three, I don’t know. I’m quite proud of the fact, and I am determined to keep it that way.

A key component of my fitness these last 15 years or so has been membership of a good, well-equipped and well-managed local gym. I’ll not name it here, but it’s part of a well-known chain of commercially run gyms and sports clubs. I use the gym three or four times a week. I’ve always used it at a variety of different times of day, owing to other demands on my time. That means I have gathered a good impression over the years of the range of people who choose to include a gym as part of their lifestyle, fitness regime, and/or leisure. The range is wide, despite it being one of those gyms where membership is by monthly subscription. There are parents with their kids, teenagers, lots of young adults, active sports-people, those seeking an exercise cure to weight or other issues, and so on. During the day, the gym is used by a large number of older people too. There is still a rise in membership after New Year (resolutions) and in September (after the kids go back to school). I know there are members who see the gym as part of a healthy middle-class lifestyle, as well as many members who struggle to meet the cost of good facilities (which it undeniably has) because they prize the contribution the gym makes to their health and sporting achievement.

The gym doesn’t have a massive social side to it. There are very occasional member’s evenings, and from time to time organised sporting challenges or charity events. The place has linked up with several local schools to host some GCSE PE-related stuff. It rents a room to a local hypnotist (and snake-oil salesman in my view), about whose popularity I know nothing. The gym has several good meeting rooms, a cafe selling healthy food, a play area for toddlers, and, as I think I’ve already said, great staff and management. There is a range of small classes, most aimed at the already fit, or those aspiring to be fitter.

And in all the time I’ve been a member, I don’t recall them ever once laying on any sort of local health promotion event. Not once.

Don’t get the wrong impression: this isn’t one of those rather macho “body-beautiful” gyms. It is very family friendly. Its membership includes the age groups we are constantly being reminded need access to advisory services (GUI advice, prostate awareness, low-level mental health support to pick just three out of the air). There isn’t even a noticeboard about health and well-being support. Six months or so ago, I asked the gym manager about these things. He told me his hands were tied by “head office policies”. I wrote twice to his head office. I have never received any sort of reply or acknowledgement.

As I am sure you could too, I can come up with quite a long list of health-related services that would, in my view, work very well if offered and promoted through a gym or health club setting, be that a subscriber’s gym, or a local council “pay as you go” facility. I know health service professionals who grieve at the amount of time they and local GPs spend giving out simple advice which they feel could often be promoted as well or better at places where people do sport or enjoy themselves. I also know how hard some of these services find it to get their message heard by your average, run of the mill, ordinary middle-class person. Prostate, breast and testicular cancer awareness spring very readily to mind.

Perhaps worse, I’ve been told that it’s common for gyms now to insist prospective new members get clearance from their GP to join. More form-filling for hard-pressed medical professionals. Why do the gyms themselves not offer a low level health screening service for would-be members – heart function, blood pressure, weight, etc? Anything worrying and abnormal could me made to require a GP opinion, of course, but for others, what a great way to begin, by saying “these things are important to us and we want them to be important to you too”.

I’ve asked around, and I don’t think my experience is unique. It’s not as if there’s nothing “in it” for gyms and health clubs to support local health and well-being services, either. However, I can only assume that mine and others have decided it’s “not their job” or that it doesn’t suit some kind of image they want to portray.

I am merely an athlete, sport fan and a former public servant. I don’t have a specialist background or knowledge about these issues from either side. However, for local gyms to do much more to support local health and well-bring services doesn’t strike me as difficult to do. Indeed, it sounds to me like a bit of a no-brainer.

So why doesn’t it happen?

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