Birmingham wins national award for innovative health improvement programme

Birmingham’s innovative Be Active programme won a national award for health improvement this week.

The collaborative programme run by Birmingham City Council and the local Primary Care Trusts scooped the 2010 Local Government Association’s LGcomms Reputation Campaign Award for improving health.

The Be Active scheme is an extension of ‘Gym For Free’, a pilot project introduced by Heart of Birmingham Teaching NHS Trust and Birmingham City Council in 2008, which offered residents in the Ladywood area of Birmingham access to free gym sessions at council leisure centres. This recently won the national overall Best Public Services award at the Guardian Public Services Awards 2009. Commenting at the Guardian awards ceremony, BBC presenter Jeremy Vine said:

‘This is a fantastic example of a local authority and the NHS thinking imaginatively and working in partnership to make a real difference to people’s lives. The impact has been simply stunning.’

Initially there were only 95 people across Ladywood regularly exercising on the local authority’s direct debit scheme (the closest benchmark). Within 6 months there were 7,000 people on the Gym For Free scheme. Demand was through the roof and people were queuing for up to 2 hours to access sessions.

By November 2008 the scheme was rolled out to the rest of the Heart of Birmingham PCT area – some 300,000 people.

Discussions began with the 3 PCTs across Birmingham to see if there could be a city wide offer for residents using the Gym For Free pilot model.

On 1 September 2009 the scheme went live to all 1.1 million people in the city. The scheme was re-named ‘Be Active’ and all 50,000 members of the Gym For Free scheme were transferred across. Gym For Free offered free swimming, fitness classes, and gym sessions to all of the residents of the constituency as long as they exercised at least 4 times per month.

There was no upper limit to the number of times they could attend exercise sessions and the only other criteria was residency within the constituency. Results from early qualitative evaluation demonstrated that:

  • Price is a barrier to participation
  • Access to free exercise increased people’s likelihood to participate
  • Hard to reach groups including women and ethnic minority communities engaged with the scheme
  • Regular exercise increased participants self reported sense of well-being
  • Participation on the scheme increased participant demand for other lifestyle information such as smoking cessation and alcohol advice.

The impact of Be Active

  • Over 96,000 people have joined Be Active in total, with over 50,000 new members since 1 September 2009
  • Over 1.5 million scheme attendances since the pilot began on 14 February 2008
  • Gym, fitness class and casual swim attendances up by over 10% on last year
  • 84 gym instructors received enhanced training and qualifications
  • Over £100,000 of additional wages paid into the Birmingham economy
  • Over 30 walking and running sessions taking place each week across the City
  • Over 30 new walking and running leaders trained
  • The equivalent of 22 full time leisure posts created across the city in 12 months from the increased demand for exercise
  • £500,000 for enhanced gym refurbishments: 3 projects on site at present. 7 planned during 2010, including the first women’s only gym at Small Heath Leisure Centre.

Be Active’s pilot scheme ‘Gym For Free’ has won the following awards:

Be Active is also short-listed for the Municipal Journal 2010 “Tackling health inequalities” award which will be announced at the end of June.

Importance of health in the West Midlands

Research by the West Midlands Regional Observatory has shown that health problems, and in particular mental health problems, are major contributory factors to the region’s high rates of worklessness.

The West Midlands has more than half a million people who have a long term health problem or disability. 239,000 people are claiming incapacity benefits,  40% of whom are claiming because of a mental health problem. Only around half of those with a health problem are in employment, and only around 30% of those with a mental health problem are in employment.

In addition to the more obvious physical benefits, exercise is increasingly felt to be an effective treatment for mental health problems such as depression and stress, with many GPs now prescribing exercise programmes as a treatment for depression.

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