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Money worries mean millions of Britons are cancelling their gym and sports club memberships, new polling data suggests. And experts fear the figures, shared exclusively with i, mean the cost of living crisis is evolving into a British health and fitness disaster.
The YouGov poll found that 10 per cent of adults in Great Britain – amounting to 5.1 million people – have either cancelled or are considering cancelling a gym or other sports or exercise membership “due to the rising cost of living”.
Dr Chris Papadopoulos, principal lecturer in public health and director of health research at the University of Bedfordshire, said the data showed that “the cost of living crisis is in danger of creating a health and fitness crisis that would very likely worsen the nation’s wellbeing even further.
“Scientific research is abundantly clear that exercise, even in small doses, is among the most effective of ways in improving not just physical health but also mental health, which for many is particularly fragile at the moment because of the financial stress they are under.”
Free outdoor exercise in parks, woodland, and other natural spaces will become more important to 70 per cent of the adults “as the cost of living rises”, the YouGov research also found.
The Wildlife and Countryside Link coalition of 67 environmental organisations, which commissioned the research, is working with others such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists to try and change the law to give people a right to such open spaces.
They are backing an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, likely to be debated this month or early 2023, to enshrine a “right to nature”.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, who is proposing the amendment, said: “These figures show the increasing need for free outdoor exercise as the cost of living bites.
“We saw clearly in the pandemic just how important local nature was to people’s mental and physical health. Parks, woodlands, canals and rivers all across the country are in decline as local authority budgets are stretched.”
The YouGov poll found that young adults were the biggest group cancelling their exercise memberships, with 18 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds doing so compared to 10 per cent of 45- to 54-year-olds and just 5 per cent of 55-year-olds. And adults living with children are more likely to be cancelling than those who don’t – 14 per cent compared to 9 per cent.
Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity for the mental health charity, Mind, said: “This research is deeply concerning. It shows the impact the cost of living crisis is having on the nation’s mental and physical health.
“Many people’s mental health is already suffering after more than two years of the pandemic, and it looks likely that the cost of living crisis is going to make things considerably worse. Being regularly active can reduce the risk of depression by up to 30 per cent and should be one of the first treatments offered to people with mild to moderate depression.”
But park budgets have been slashed and one in three households do not have a natural space, like a park, woodland or river, within a 15 minute walk of their home, according to separate research from Natural England.
Dr Papadopoulos said: “It is key that authorities help support and motivate communities, particularly those where the most social and economic deprivation exists, to access other means of exercising such as natural green spaces.
“However, if no effective action is taken, then public health will continue to worsen. This has serious consequences, for example, leaving us more vulnerable to disease.”
Separate research undertaken in January, also by YouGov for Wildlife and Countryside Link, revealed that seven in 10 people living in nature-deprived areas would exercise more with better access to natural spaces, with young people and families most likely to increase their exercise.
Ben Seal, of British Canoeing, said: “Whether it’s paddling down the river, a walk in the park, or a swim in the sea, access to the outdoors is absolutely vital for our health and wellbeing.
“Sport and good health shouldn’t depend on your postcode or the size of your bank balance. Yet the rising cost of living, and the crumbling condition and loss of many natural spaces, is making it harder than ever for people to exercise.”
The growing obstacles to exercise could also affect the next generation of sports talent, warns Mark Lawrie, head of StreetGames, a sport-for-development charity, as 87 per cent people in the new YouGov survey said “access to parks and other natural spaces is important for encouraging children and young people into sport and exercise”.
“Many of our leading sports people took their first run, leap or paddle, in their local park or river,” Mr Lawrie said. “But unfortunately, too many of our parks and other greenspaces are suffering from decline and access to nature remains far too unequal.”
A large number of studies have shown that access to nature boosts physical and mental health – improving the likelihood of a longer and healthier life.
One study, by Exeter University, found that convening with nature for just two hours a week can work wonders for your mood – with depressed patients prescribed a weekly dose of oceans, forests or other natural environments reporting a 69 per cent improvement in their sense of well-being in just three months.
Yet the condition of many local parks and other green spaces is deteriorating as a result of local authority funding cuts, with an estimated £190m lost from local authority parks budgets alone since 2016, according to research by The Association for Public Service Excellence.
A Nature For Everyone campaign run by the Wildlife and Countryside Link is asking members of the public to show their support for these changes by signing a petition to the Government at bit.ly/nature-everyone.
Richard Benwell, Wildlife and Countryside Link chief executive, said: “The Government’s Levelling Up agenda is focused on opportunity and quality of life, but somehow the Levelling Up legislation forgets one of our most basic needs – access to nature.
“Today, many people’s lives are held back by the environment they live in. A good environment is vital for people’s mental wellbeing and physical health.
“The Government should recognise a right to nature as one of the core aims of Levelling Up, supporting greener and healthier communities around the country. This is a real opportunity for the UK to show global leadership, following the UN call for all countries to acknowledge a right to a healthy environment in law.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The Government’s 25-year environment plan sets out its ambition to connect more people from all backgrounds with the natural environment for their health and well-being.
“England has a fantastic network of public rights of way and we are working to complete the England Coast Path which, at around 2,700 miles, will be the longest waymarked and maintained coastal walking route in the world.
“Through the England Trees Action Plan, we have also enabled the creation of large-scale publicly accessible woodlands near towns and cities, significantly benefiting people’s access to nature”.