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Reaching the less active: A guide for public sport and leisure services

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Significant research shows that the most effective preventative measure for ill health and wellbeing is being active. Yet despite the evidence, the level of physical inactivity in England is continuing. This guide focuses on the public sport and leisure sector’s role in getting the less active more active.


The nation is facing significant challenges to its physical and mental health and an increasing number of individuals report feelings of loneliness.  

Significant research shows that the most effective preventative measure for ill health and wellbeing is being active. Yet despite the evidence, the level of physical inactivity in England is continuing. Sport England’s Active Lives Adult Survey reported that between November 2021-22 a quarter of adults were inactive (that is, people doing less than an average of 30 minutes activity per week). The Active Lives Children and Young People’s Survey for the 2022-23 academic year also shows no increase in the number of  children and young people classified as active since the last academic year, with the figure being active remaining at 47 per cent.  

Efforts to address inactivity has been significantly hampered by barriers and difficulties created during and after the COVID-19 pandemic and ageing facilities. Stubborn inactivity levels are at risk of increasing further, particularly for less active groups, as communities face a cost of living crisis. The Department for Transport (DfT) active travel strategy set out objectives to get more people walking and cycling, and to increase the percentage of children aged 5 to 10 who usually walk to school from 49 per cent in 2014 to 55 per cent in 2025. Preventing and tackling inequalities and helping the whole of the nation to be active is a key aim of Sport England’s Uniting the Movement strategy, and councils have a key role to play in the realisation of this.

The Government’s new sports strategy “Get Active: a strategy for the future of sport and physical activity” (August 2023) sets new targets to get 2.5 million more adults and one million more children active by 2030. This includes specific targets for the less active groups. The strategy seeks to improve the nation’s health and fitness, enhance corporate governance, and make the sector more resilient to future challenges at elite and grassroots level.

Both Sport England and the Government’s strategies call for greater collaboration and innovation between councils, professionals, different sectors and organisations to encourage more people to be active and reap the benefits. Specifically, the Government’s new strategy calls on councils to work with their partners to develop local plans that go beyond traditional leisure venues to encourage people to be active in their everyday lives.

However, the underlying reasons for an individual being inactive are varied and complex, and may include lack of access, awareness of opportunities, individual motivation and prohibitive costs amongst other issues, and therefore the solutions are not straightforward. 

Councils with their wide-ranging responsibilities across public health, social care, education, planning, reducing carbon emissions and sport and leisure services, puts them in a unique position to be able to provide services and experiences that are rooted and driven by the community, based on genuine need that has been identified through consultation and local strategies. This makes the role of councils in increasing the nation’s physical activity levels even more crucial.

Leeds City Council is using the Healthy Holidays scheme to successfully leverage support and the promotion of wider partnerships and change throughout Leeds. Examples of this include swimming catch up sessions through Active Leeds, funding and supporting the backpack scheme through Zarach, the uniform exchange scheme through Zero Waste Leeds, upskilling providers in food and nutritional education through Zest/Foodwise Leeds, and a range of training opportunities for all healthy holiday’s providers. The swimming catch-up offer has been a huge success, intensive swimming lessons have been delivered to 1,600 children and a further 1,500 spaces were available for summer 2022. By the end of the year, Active Leeds will have helped over 3,000 children confidently put their face in water, move independently through the water and learn how to raise the alarm in the event a friend gets into difficulty in the water.

This guide focuses on the public sport and leisure sector’s role in getting the less active more active. It builds on the joint report between the LGA, the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) and the Chief Cultural & Leisure Officers Association (CLOA)  report “Securing the future of Public Sport and Leisure services”, and shares learning from councils who are making progress in this area and builds on other guides in the series:

What and who do we mean by 'the less active'?

Physical activity guidelines for adults, children and young people were introduced by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) in 2011. Since then, they have been refreshed and expanded to include the number of minutes of physical activity, strength building and balance activities that people of all ages, including those pregnant, disabled adults, and children and young people, should do each week. For the purpose of this briefing we will be using the levels of physical activity and inactivity used by Sport England’s Active Lives survey, classified as:  

Adults (CMO guidelines recommend doing 150 minutes or more of moderate intensity equivalent a week)

  • Active - doing at least 150 minutes a week
  • Fairly active - doing 30-149 minutes a week
  • Inactive - doing fewer than 30 minutes a week

Children and young people (CMO guidelines recommend doing an average of 60 minutes of moderate intensity activity a day across the week) 

  • Active – doing an average of 60 minutes or more a day
  • Fairly active – doing an average of 30-59 minutes a day
  • Less active – doing less than an average of 30 minutes a day

A consultation with communities and healthcare professionals by Active Kent & Medway, the Active Partnership for Kent and Medway and Kent County Council, highlighted that people wanted to know about local opportunities to be active, and also the importance of seeing people like them in their locality taking part in activity. It showed that many people were not clear on the recommended level of activity they should be doing, and that 150 minutes a week was an intimidating starting point. In response resources such as posters, flyers and cards to encourage people to do two minutes three times a day were produced, this would ensure that individuals would reach 30 minutes each working week.

Certain groups in society are likely to be less active than others. Recent data from the Active Lives survey shows these groups include women and girls, Asian and Black adults, children and young people, those living in more deprived areas, disabled people, adults over 55, children and young people more generally, and people with long-term health conditions. 

The pandemic has heightened the level of inequality for certain groups:

  • Activity levels for Black and Asian adults has dropped by almost five per cent since November 2019 and both ethnic groups are 10-14 per cent less active than their white counterparts.
  • Research by the Activity Alliance shows that “COVID-19 has reversed progress made in levels of activity among disabled people”, the number of  physically inactive individuals was 34 per cent prior to the pandemic but has since increased to 39 per cent. 
  • The gap in activity levels widened during the pandemic. Activity levels fell 4.4 per cent for those living in the most deprived areas (Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) 1-3) compared to a drop of 1.2 per cent for those living in the least deprived areas (IMD 8-10).  

The issue of inequality in sport and leisure participation has been apparent for many years and is not new. For example, in the 1960’s and 70’s the Sport for All concept was widely promoted and in 2001 in ‘Sports Development: Policy, Process and Practice’ (Kevin Hylton and M. Totten) spoke about the inequalities in society being reflected in participation. While Sir Professor Michael Marmot identified ‘206 left behind places’ that experience both disadvantage from high levels of deprivation and a lack of community and civic assets, infrastructure such as sports facilities, active travel routes and investment. (Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 years on, 2020).

Councils are crucial in providing the assets and environments that supports physical activity across communities. Their work with the voluntary and community sector and health partners to drive up activity levels can help to reach groups and individuals that other agencies find difficult to access, especially in communities living in lower socio-economic areas. It is these communities who are more reliant on public parks, green spaces, playgrounds, active travel routes which are free to access, as well as sport and leisure provision because of subsidised and affordable membership. However, accessibility is not equal for everyone and every place. Friends of the Earth research on England’s green space gap (2020) found that “almost 10 million people in England live in 1,108 neighborhoods which are the most deprived of green space” and “almost 40 per cent of people of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds (BAME) live in England’s most green space-deprived neighbourhoods”.

While, the recent Public Accounts Committee inquiry into ‘grassroots participation in sport and physical activity' noted that “inactivity reduced at a faster rate in local delivery pilot areas than in areas without the pilots. However, Sport England conceded it had found it hard to translate successes at a local level and with specific groups into gains nationally.” This emphasises the importance of tailored local approaches to effectively engaging people. 

Something that Hylton and Totten point out – ‘remedying inequalities and overcoming barriers involves development strategies.’ Some of these strategies are outlined within this guide and the accompanying case studies along with suggested measures that councils can take to increase participation in their communities. 

Making the case for tackling physical inactivity and supporting the less active

There is a wealth of data, research and insight on inactivity available from Sport England and Public Health England (now the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities). Taken together they make a compelling argument for increasing levels of physical activity and prioritising the less active.

Data shows that one in four people in England do less than 30 minutes of physical activity a week, far below the recommended amount of 150 minutes as laid out by the Chief Medical Officer. This is important because 1 in 6 deaths are caused by inactivity, and physical inactivity costs the UK an estimated £7.4 billion annually.

Movement also makes people happier and healthier, and for communities it can have life-changing sustainable benefits that bring huge economic and social value. 

Those who do the least amount of activity stand to benefit the most – it only takes a small amount of regular activity to make a big difference. People who have a physically active lifestyle have a 20 - 35 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and stroke compared to those who have a sedentary lifestyle. Evidence suggests that regular physical activity also reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 40 per cent, dementia by up to 30 per cent and various types of cancer by up to 30 per cent

High profile national campaigns such as This Girl Can and We Are Undefeatable have shown what can be achieved when targeted work with inactive groups is undertaken. Sport England research shows that shows that every £1 spent on community sport and physical activity generates nearly £4 for the English economy and society, including large savings for health and social care through the prevention of serious physical and mental health conditions. 

Insights from the Moving Communities platform (July 2021) shows that after the pandemic, participants from more deprived areas returned to leisure centres when they reopened, rather than exercising at home or outdoors due to lack of indoor and outdoor space. This is important because people from lower socio-economic groups are twice as likely to be inactive than the more affluent. People on lower incomes or unemployed depend on affordable and/or subsidised public leisure provision.

Hartlepool Borough Council, one of the pilots for Moving Communities is using it to track participation at the borough’s leisure facilities and glean evidence of performance, sustainability and social value. This data will help the council to further progress the recovery of the centres post-Covid and make informed decisions to promote and improve access to physical activity. 

Identifying and supporting the less active

Identifying the less active

To target focus and resource where it will have the most impact, councils need to know who is less active within their communities, where these individuals and groups are, and the most effective ways to engage them. The following tools and national policy guidance can help with this.

Sport England produces a wealth of data insights for councils. The data is taken from the active lives survey for adults and children and young people and includes a baseline from 2015 (for adults) and 2017 (CYP). The Active Lives Online Tool enables councils to understand activity levels, attitudes, levels of loneliness and volunteering by demographic group, location and activity. 

Sport England’s Moving Communities service measures public leisure’s contribution to active communities, providing data on participation, social value, number of visits by activity, financial performance, customer experience and service delivery. It enables comparison to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy's nearest neighbours model. 

LG Inform is the LGA’s data benchmarking tool. It brings together key performance data, alongside contextual and financial information, enabling councils to benchmark and tailor data outputs to construct personalised reports including for example demographic data.

Local authority public health teams are key partners to public sport and leisure teams. They have access to a wealth of local population health insights, a good understanding of the scale of the challenge and develop the Local Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA) and local Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategy (JHWS). 

OHID produces a Physical Activity Tool with data for the whole of England on physical activity and related risk factors and conditions such as obesity and diabetes. It aims to help councils to promote physical activity, develop understanding and support benchmarking, commissioning and service improvement. The Government’s new sports strategy “Get Active” sets specific targets to get the least active groups more active by 2030. These are: 

  • 1.4 million more active adults from those in NS-SEC 6-8 (NS-Sec is the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification that provides an indication of socio-economic position based on occupation).
  • 0.7 million more active people who identify as having 1 or more disabilities. 
  • 1.5 million more active adults aged 55+. 
  • 1.25 million more active women. 
  • 0.19 million more active Asian adults, particularly people from Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic groups. 
  • 0.09 million more active black adults.

Supporting the less active

Knowing your audience and understanding the barriers and challenges facing that specific group so that you can tailor interventions is important because it will help it to land better with the group you are seeking to support. There may also be additional challenges that are unique to your local area such as availability and accessibility of facilities, parks, green spaces and community assets, so engaging with the groups you want to work with to better understand their specific needs, barriers and challenges is important. 

Although not an extensive list, some of the barriers and factors for different groups tend to include: 

  • Cost of gym membership and sports attire, opening hours, feeling uncomfortable or intimidated by gym environments and anticipated lack of enjoyment. 
  • Poor mental health: Fatigue, loss of interest in activities, low self-esteem and social anxiety.
  • Children and young people: lack of confidence, enjoyment, competence and understanding of the benefits of physical activity. Restricted access to opportunities for participation such as active play, variety/preferred activities, low cost/free activities. Lack of family and parental support, social pressures, body image.
  • Ethnic minorities: language barriers, lack of awareness of the links between physical activity and health, cultural expectations, social responsibilities, lack of suitable environment for physical activity because of religious, cultural needs.
  • Women: feelings that spending time with friends and family or studying/working should be more important than being active. Lack of enjoyment, time or opportunity to be active. 
  • Long-term conditions: pain/tiredness/breathlessness before, during or after physical activity, lack of motivation, not knowing what types of activity are right for them or their condition, fear of hurting themselves, feeling embarrassed, feeling unsafe in public spaces.

Understanding the evidence base on the challenges facing the specific group you are seeking to support can also be helpful to inform the design and delivery of effective interventions. This data may already be available through the public health team. Although dated now, a good example of this is Lancashire County Council’s Physical activity Health behaviours joint strategic needs assessment literature review on the barriers to being physically active for children young people and adults (2014). Some charities, national campaigns and universities may have carried out research or have useful resources available that are adaptable. The Richmond Group has research on people with long term conditions and the This Girl Can campaign and Women In Sport has insights and resources to engage women and girls. 

If the research doesn’t already exist, it could be a good opportunity to strengthen relationships with the public health team, local charities, the NHS, schools to identify shared priorities and/or co-commission research to help inform next steps. This helps to make the best use of finite resources, and drive forward shared strategic objectives. 

Through its active travel programme, ‘Your Active Journey’, East Sussex County Council worked with Sustrans to bring their expertise to provide add on activities to support local providers of the Holiday and Activities Food programme (HAF) to build up children’s skills, knowledge and confidence to walk, wheel and cycle. HAF provides free healthy meals and activities for children between five and 16 years old and receiving free school meals during term time. The programme reached children who were unlikely to have access to a cycle at home. For example, Lizette, aged 8 was able to try cycling for the first time and supported in key skills such as focus, resilience, and a positive attitude enabling her to gain the skills to confidently cycle a short distance, giving her a positive and enjoyable experience. Spotting an opportunity to continue and enhance her learning, Sustrans worked with the community team to transfer her to her local Cycle Hub, enabling Lizette to continue using a bike from the fleet to practice her new skills.

Heathland School, Hounslow has a higher proportion of ethnic minority students than the national average (Indian, Pakistani Somalian). PE staff were aware that parents tended not to see physical activity as important for their daughters and underestimated how much activity they should be doing and prioritised attendance at academic clubs. This was exacerbated for Muslim girls because of additional cultural expectations in terms of their dress and leisure time. Parents also tended to be less active than they should be. The school wanted to raise parents’ awareness of the need for young people to lead active lifestyles and create greater family support for girls to be active and offer a greater range of activities to encourage girls to participate beyond curriculum PE. They used a Girls Active pre-intervention survey and opened discussions which highlighted the girls’ views differed to the staff’s assumptions. It became clear that lack of family encouragement and particularly lack of dads’ understanding were major barriers to girls’ participation. Staff recognised dads tended to be the main influencers and decision-makers in the students’ homes, so they engaged with them and set up a Dads and Daughters activity taster event. The approach has increased Dads’ understanding of the importance of being active and led to two morning aerobic clubs being set up and the recruitment of Girls Active leaders. 

The Everybody active, Every day framework is a national, evidence-based approach to support all sectors to embed physical activity into the fabric of daily life, share the message that being active is fun, fulfilling and make it an easy, cost-effective and ‘normal’ choice in every community in England. It identifies the following four areas that requires action at national and local level: 

1. Active society: Utilising communities to be agents of change, creating a social movement, using innovative marketing campaigns to change attitudes and social norms. Embedding physical activity in all policies and planning decisions.

2. Moving professionals: activating networks of expertise across all sectors including education, sport and leisure, health and social care, planning, development, design and transport. Expanding on the NHS’ ‘making every contact count’ approach to specialists from all sectors.

3. Active environments: creating the right spaces to enable communities to make physical activity and movement a part of their everyday lives. Bringing together council work across different policy areas to deliver real change that has a long, lasting impact.

4. Moving at scale: scaling up interventions that make us active based on the needs of communities, maximising existing assets, research and co-design opportunities.

It advocates implementing the following five steps in local areas to support change:

1. Teach every child to have and enjoy the skills to be active every day

2. Create safe and attractive environments where everyone can walk or 

cycle, regardless of age or disability 

3. Make every contact count for professionals and volunteers to encourage active lives

4. Lead by example in every public sector workspace 

5. Evaluate and share the findings so the learning of what works can grow

The framework is very helpful when considering the overall interventions and strategies to increase activity levels. As discussed earlier, tailored approaches may be needed. Learning from Sport England’s Tackling Inactivity and Economic Disadvantage fund provides the following valuable insights into engaging and encouraging specific audiences to be more active and helps to build upon the framework: 


Trafford Moving is Trafford Borough Council’s physical activity and sport strategy. The strategy aims to address the issue of physical inactivity in Trafford by maximising community assets such as parks and leisure centres, and is a key part of Trafford’s Health and Wellbeing Strategy and Trafford Together. It is undertaking a local pilot which has given the council the opportunity to use small investments to support and build rapport in the most inactive part of the borough. By identifying trusted people within the community, (the ‘gatekeepers’) this has helped to unlock relationships and reach those most in need of support. The community have put forward ideas which have then been developed and funding distributed to local organisations in a ‘test and learn’ approach.


Councils are facing an uncertain future. LGA analysis estimates that councils in England face a £4 billion funding gap over the next two years just to keep services standing still. Without the additional funding needed to protect services from further cuts, discretionary services like public sport and leisure and parks are at risk as councils are forced to look for ways to protect statutory services.  But there are significant opportunities to link discretionary services into existing council led strategic priorities and plans for active travel, public health and net zero to deliver on these objectives.

Finding new innovative, creative and lower cost ways of delivering activities has become a necessity. This has partly been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic which had a profound financial impact on public sport and leisure services and also prompted a renewed recognition by the sector of its contribution to tackling inequalities. 

Sport England is extending its Place Partnerships work and investing £250 million in 80 – 100 places which have the greatest need to help more people to be physically active by breaking down the barriers that get in the way. 

Informal activities

Over recent years, there has been a shift in emphasis from formal sports and leisure activities to more informal, free and often individualistic ones e.g. running, cycling - the success of Couch to 5kParkrunour parks, good gym and mass participation events with a community atmosphere. Some councils like Medway are personalising such events to bring communities together and encourage them to be more active. 

The Medway Mile: Each year Medway Council holds the ‘Medway Mile’, a free mass participation family event for runners, joggers and walkers. The location changes each year enabling as many local communities as possible to participate


All schools can play an important role in encouraging an early habit in children and young people to be active especially during their commute to and from school. While the national ambition is for all schools to become part of a multi academy trust (MAT) by 2030, councils continue to have responsibility and therefore influence over a significant number of maintained schools, including around three quarters of primary schools and about a third of secondary schools, and indeed possess lots of valuable knowledge and skills to support MATs too.

The findings from the recent CYP active lives survey provides insights into the year groups that might benefit most from a targeted approach. For example, activity levels for school Years 3-4 (ages 7-9) is lowest at 40 per cent. Understanding the reasons behind this will be important component for future action. Conversely, it shows the proportion of 5-16 year olds walking, cycling or scootering to get to places (active travel) has significantly increased, with one million more CYP travelling by active means compared to five years ago. This offers a good opportunity for councils and schools to work together to implement new initiatives and build upon existing ones.

Surrey County Council’s Education services supports Surrey schools to enhance road safety and encourage sustainable travel choices. It provides a range of services including working with schools on their strategic plans, providing assessments to create a safer environment and providing training such as the Feet First Walking Training for Year 3 (7- and 8-year-olds) to provide pupils with road safety skills to better enable them to safely walk to and from school with their parents and carers and prepare them for independent travel. 

Embedding social value objectives into procurement practices

Another opportunity is to implement the recommendation from the “Securing the future of public sport and leisure services” (2021), for councils to consider what social value outcomes they want to achieve through public sport and leisure services and design services accordingly, including activities such as outreach work to support those who are most vulnerable or less active and embedding this into procurement activity and contract management processes.

Parks, green spaces and active play

The benefits of green space on individual mental health and wellbeing are well documented. It is less well understood that aspects of where we live and the physical environment around us can both encourage and discourage people to be more active. PHE’s Improving access to parks and green spaces: a new review for 2020 sets out the need for concerted effort and close partnership working between agencies, bringing public health and local healthcare and social care providers together with planning departments, parks and leisure management, transport providers, architects, developers, and the communities who will be using these spaces. Local policies and strategies that include requirements for greenspace based on local needs, will help councils and the local NHS deliver on ambitions for healthy communities, whilst contributing to wider local priorities such as tackling climate change, reducing social isolation and improving the local economy.

The report offers policy, practice and research recommendations for local government. It reinforces the vital role councils play in: 

  • providing new, good quality greenspace that is inclusive and equitable
  • improving, maintaining and protecting existing greenspace
  • increasing green infrastructure within public spaces and promoting healthy streets
  • improving transport links, pathways and other means of access to greenspace, and providing imaginative routes linking areas of greenspace for active travel.

Through council engagement events with disabled people in Newcastle, key issues of suitability of play areas, lack of inclusive play equipment in the city’s playgrounds and lack of information on location and types of play areas suitable for use by disabled children were highlighted. To help address this, Newcastle City Council  mapped and audited all play areas in Newcastle according to their condition, play value and accessibility by the Play and Parks Services. ‘Playability scores' for play equipment and spaces were developed, in consultation with children, to evaluate their play value. Sites were prioritised for redevelopment using the Playability scores and other factors, such as child population and indices of multiple deprivation (IMD). The Play Service consulted with children and families to work up designs for the play areas. Work was done with parents of children with disabilities specifically to look at making sites accessible in local areas. Inclusive play equipment has been added to playgrounds with on-going refurbishment projects. Feedback from children and parents about the inclusive play areas has been extremely positive and resulted in increased usage. 

Behaviour change

Behavioural science can be used to improve outcomes for local government services, helping to reduce demand across the public sector by encouraging residents to take up preventative services and improve their health and wellbeing. One of the key determinants for a successful intervention is to understand the factors contributing to why successful behaviour change occurs .The LGA has produced a guide to influencing behaviour change to encourage active travel and practical tips and learning from its behavioural insights programme to support councils on their journey.

Wolverhampton has some of the highest levels of physical inactivity in the country this was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, during this time inactive people were shown to exercise less. The council set a goal ‘to increase physical activity levels in Wolverhampton through a sustainable behaviour change intervention to at least 30 minutes a week for low socio-economic and inactive residents across the city’. Drawing on behaviour change models, a literature review, and stakeholder interviews, several drivers and barriers to exercising were identified. This was used to inform the project design. A six-week walking programme was delivered virtually via the MoveSpring app to support inactive participants in building a walking exercise habit, behavioural science concepts such as goal setting, commitment, social comparison daily and weekly step count targets and motivational messages were incorporated. 


Access to good quality facilities is key to encouraging people to get and stay active. Significant funding is being invested into a range of facilities across the country including football pitches, tennis courts and opening up school facilities for community use. In addition, leisure centres and swimming pools are being supported through the Government’s £63 million swimming pool support fund. 

Due to their extensive facility stock and targeted community outreach programmes, as well as their statutory and non-statutory responsibilities, councils are vital in sports and leisure provision, driving forward interventions and securing funding to support communities with this issue. Most councils are in a position of needing to consider their facility stock alongside current and future needs; the Strategic Outcomes Planning Guidance is a useful resource and levers such as the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 agreements whenever and wherever there is development and regeneration offer opportunities to co-locate services and wellbeing hubs. Newer facilities have recovered faster from the impact of Covid seeing a 68 per cent recovery compared to 62 per cent for older facilities, and participation levels also show significant boosts of over 50 per cent in usage when an old facility is replaced. There is a shift towards developing these facilities into an active wellbeing service, including through co-location with GP and other health services.


The Health and Social Care Act 2022 helps improve health and care services through better integration and by tackling growing health inequalities. There are several overlaps (see bullet points below) between the challenges Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) have been tasked with and those facing councils seeking to improve activity levels of less active groups. This provides opportunities for health partners and councils to align shared priorities, co-commission and integrate services that support people to be physically active. The challenges ICSs have been tasked with are:

  • improving the health of children and young people
  • supporting people to stay well and independent
  • acting sooner to help those with preventable conditions
  • supporting those with long-term conditions or mental health issues,
  • getting the best from collective resources.

A GP referral scheme had been in place in Westminster for many years but senior managers saw the need to broaden this as a service. Conversations were held with Public Health and through a desire to develop their reach the service put themselves forward to be registered with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Starting small scale with one sports centre (Moberley), the service grew from a paper-based one to employ a Physical Activity Coordinator and initially focused on gym-based activity. A £1 membership fee was introduced to remove cost barriers and encourage individuals to keep returning. Relationships were gradually built with the individuals who developed a routine of coming to the leisure centre, and the service linked with local doctors who instead of prescribing pills were prescribing exercise. The service gradually developed over the years into the Physical Activity Referral Scheme (PARS), and it is now a 12-week programme with reduced rate membership offered for life. It has integrated with initiatives such as ESCAPE-pain, Change4Life, Sport for Confidence and One You Westminster – with cross referrals taking place. It now offers activities in outdoor spaces like Paddington Recreation Ground which is an important local hub for a range of activities and walking initiatives. Occupational Therapists (OT) help to bridge the gap between the perception of leisure centres and those not confident to attend one. The OT’s have a good relationship with the PARS coordinator whose aim is to do outreach work, speaking to GPs and health practitioners to promote the scheme and related programmes to encourage physical activity.

Active Travel

One of the commitments in the Government’s cycling and walking plan (Gear Change) launched in 2020 was to establish a new body – Active Travel England – which set aside a £2 billion budget in order to boost cycling and walking. This could include making streets safer, GP’s prescribing cycling, and making improvements to the national cycle network. Local Authorities have been encouraged to develop Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans (LCWIPs) to identify and prioritise investment for cycling and walking schemes. Active travel schemes can range from creating new infrastructure, such as separate cycle lanes on roads or amending existing road space to create pedestrian zones outside schools, as well as activities such as providing training in cycle safety.


This briefing has outlined the longstanding challenge with regards to physical inactivity, the issues that this can cause both from an individual and societal perspective, and the potential impact if positive behaviour change can be achieved. 

Councils have a key role to play with this agenda, given their significant facility stock and ability to forge effective partnerships with important stakeholders such as health, schools and community development organisations. 

Through maximising their assets, using innovative and creative solutions, and aligning wider council led priorities that work with local communities to deliver their needs, can provide a combination of measures that will help move the dial.

Case studies