written by David Heathcote

The launch of Sport England’s 10-year strategy, Uniting the Movement, earlier this year, formed a pivotal moment in our industry. The first of ‘the Five Big Issues’ is perhaps the most important and overarching as we continue to reopen as an industry: a chance to Recover and Reinvent. The sector must seize the moment to ‘reinvent’ and interpret recovery as an opportunity to get itself and the nation back on its feet (and moving) and  not just ‘get back to normal’

“We have an opportunity to use the disruption Covid-19 has brought to accelerate progress – to reinvent as more agile, inclusive and resilient and to change the way we do things, so we better meet the needs of everyone, in every community.” 

Sport England, Uniting the Movement, January 2021 

Diversifying leisure provision, beyond the 15% of the population who typically have gym memberships, to include other audiences, including older people, opens opportunities for operators to reach further into their communities, providing business, health and social benefits. 

  • Business benefits aren’t just for the private sector – progressive local authorities ensure that leisure is financially viable and competitive, gaining a strong financial return on investment in order to make the best and sustainable use of public money 
  • Health and social returns on investment aren’t just for public sector operators – intelligent private operators realise that competing only on price offers a diminishing share of the same regular gym membership (the 15%) and misses out on looking to the untapped opportunity 

Reinvent to recover 

The growing older exercise market provides an exciting and timely income generating opportunity for operators who recognise the opportunity. 

In 2018 the financial journal Barron’s described spending by the over 65s, the ‘longevity economy’, as ‘the mother of all untapped markets’. 

  • There are approx. 12m people aged over 65 in the UK (18% of the population) – expected to rise to 22% by 2030 
  • Consumer spending in the over 50s has consistently outstripped that of younger age groups 
  • The over 50s account for 76% of the nation’s financial wealth 

“The rise of the longevity economy remains the most important yet predictable market event facing the investment community today but selling more of the same old solutions is no longer a safe bet.” 

Joseph F. Coughlin, founder and director of the MIT AgeLab

Reinvent to increase business resilience 

15% of sporting age adults buy gym memberships: often younger, fitter people who see gyms as places for ‘people like me’ or as aspirational places for who they want to become. But what about those whose goals are different? What if you simply want to ‘add years to life’ and  life  to those years so you can remain independent to enjoy a long, healthy, active life? 

Operators who take the older market seriously can attract an untapped membership group, which the majority still continue to consistently overlook. Why, as we emerge from the pandemic, would we still focus on the same 15% that buy gym (and switch between) memberships? 

COVID-19 has given us all an opportunity to shake up how we work and do business and  the ‘new normal’ should not be a scramble to recreate what we had before. Instead, we should look up from the treadmill and see new opportunities. 

Reinvent to increase health and social resilience 

Physical activity is vital to our economy as a preventative or rehabilitative health and wellbeing intervention. Sir Simon Stevens, NHS Chief Executive, describes the leisure sector as ‘the front line of the NHS’. 

Physical activity generates massive benefits for individuals and for society. And with improved physical and mental health comes a reduction in demand on health and social care services from those most likely to need them: 

  • Fewer GP visits
  • Prevention and management of long-term conditions 
  • Improved happiness and mental health 
  • Improved recovery from operations and illness 
  • Reduced social isolation and loneliness 
  • Improved resilience towards seasonal illnesses such as Winter Flu and Covid 

Let’s seize the moment to reinvent our sector and recover from the pandemic. 



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