Forest of Dean District Council: taking exercise and rehab classes into the community

Forest of Dean runs a host of different exercise and rehabilitation classes. As well as running them from local leisure centres, the council is using 15 different community venues, from village halls to social housing common rooms, to reach remote residents. This case study shows how district councils have improved the health of their local areas.

Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire is home to around 85,000 people. It has relatively low levels of deprivation, although the gap in life expectancy between the least and most affluent is still significant – 6.4 years for men and 2.8 years for women.

There is, however, concern about the health of the local population. Seven in 10 adults are overweight, which is above the national average. There are also high rates of diabetes.

Forest of Dean District Council has prioritised getting people active for a number of years. Like many areas, it has an exercise-onreferral scheme. The 12-week programme was launched 15 years ago and provides a comprehensive range of support. But the council has not stopped there.

Highlights of progress

Over the years Forest of Dean has built on its exercise-on-referral programme by developing a range of other referral schemes. There is a falls prevention service for the over 60s, which provides a range of seated and standing exercises that improve strength, flexibility and balance.

There are also rehabilitation groups available on-referral for cardiac, cancer and respiratory disease patients. They are for patients who have finished the NHS phase-three rehab programmes and are delivered by qualified instructors in the community.

Referrals are made by GPs, physios and other health professionals. Participants are signed up for 12 weeks, after which they are assessed. Those who wish to can continue for longer.

The council has also developed a range of open courses. These include KickStart, a healthy living course, which covers healthy eating topics and incorporates a beginners’ circuit class. Participants have an opportunity to be weighed and asked questions in an informal setting.

There is also a pilates class aimed at strengthening, improving posture and reducing back pain, and a drop-in class aimed at improving balance, along with a range of general circuit and exercise classes. In total there are 27 different classes run each week.

What also marks out Forest of Dean’s approach is that the council has taken its classes out into the community. There are four leisure centres, but the classes are also provided in 15 other community venues. These include church halls, community centres, village halls and social housing common rooms. They have proved very popular – over 300 people access classes in these settings each week.

One of those is Maria McSweeney, who is 65. She has tried a variety of activities after being referred by her GP as she needed to lose weight before she had a double knee replacement. “I found it hard to motivate myself at home. I hadn’t been to a gym for over 30 years and was a little daunted when I was given a personal trainer.”

But she said she was immediately put at ease and started enjoying the activities. Within 12 weeks, she had lost 1.5 stone. “I feel better than I have in myself for a long time and enjoy going to the gym, which I would never have believed.”

Future plans

Forest of Dean is always looking at new opportunities for local residents and works in partnership with leisure services and other providers.

In early 2019 a new exercise service will be launched in partnership with the local hospital’s outpatients physio team. It will be aimed at helping those with hip and knee arthritis to remain active.

Similar to the cardiac and cancer classes, this support will be offered once the NHS rehabilitation has finished. The first session will be run by the hospital team, before handing over to community instructors.

The council has also been in talks with the local branch of Parkinson’s UK with a view to establishing support for their clients.

Healthy Lifestyle Coordinator Gary Deighton said: “There are two really active support groups that meet regularly. We have spoken about setting up an activity class to help them. It is good to be in touch with the patient groups.”

Lessons and key messages

Mr Deighton said that providing such a wide array of classes requires creativity and perseverance to ensure they remain financially viable as his team no longer receives funding from the council’s public health budget for its courses.

Charging has been introduced – there is a fee of £3 to attend referral classes – and the council works in partnership with others.

Mr Deighton said: “We pay fees for the hire of the community venues, and this helps to fund the cost of these local assets. We also have an arrangement, which enables residents in housing accommodation to enjoy discounts in return for cheaper venue hire. We have also been given help from some of the big charities, like the British Lung Foundation, which has provided training of our instructors.

“The key is keeping the classes relevant and popular. Having a different menu of options means we can encourage residents to try different classes. We also work alongside the social prescribing team – that is a real benefit as we support each other.”


Gary Deighton
Healthy Lifestyle Coordinator
Forest of Dean District Council