25 June 2018
The abolition of charges for leisure activities “substantially increased” participation among more deprived groups say researchers. Physical inactivity is estimated to cost the NHS £455 million a year through increased illnesses like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers.

There are much lower levels of exercise among the lowest socio economic groups, with only around half of men in the poorest group regularly exercising compared with over three quarters in the top fifth.  

The study was led by Dr Emma Halliday from Lancaster University and Dr Benjamin Barr from Liverpool University into the ways that entrance charges influenced the use of leisure facilities in several local authorities in the north west of England.   These included Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, Knowsley, Lancaster, Liverpool, Preston and South Ribble.

As part of the study, researchers looked the impact of free leisure schemes in both Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen.

The researchers found that:

  • The re:fresh scheme in Blackburn with Darwen provided universal free access to most activities in leisure centres, leading to a 64% increase in the use of the gym and swimming pool, translating into 26,4000 more sessions per quarter between 2008-2014.
  • In Blackpool, the offer of free swimming in the school holidays led to an additional 10% of children swimming at least once.
  • In both towns, these effects were largest among the most disadvantaged socio economic groups.

One man who took part in the study said: “I’m struggling with my work and only get bits of work. So I have been going when it’s been free really.”

More generally, the researchers found that concessions at the age of 60 temporarily delay the decline in participation rates among older people.

One retired woman said: “The cost is a problem for me now I’m retired and I have less income.”

Apart from the retired, cost was a barrier for those receiving welfare payments and the low paid.

Charges also affected user participation more generally – people often attended at times when charges were either lower or free.

The researchers said: “For many people on low incomes, entrance charges may be prohibitive and people can’t always afford leisure memberships that offer better value for money. Pricing policies that include components of free access and offer more flexible payment options are most likely to contribute to reducing inequalities in physical activity in disadvantaged groups.”

The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) School for Public Health Research (SPHR).