Towards a healthier nation: Sport England interview

ConnectSport is official media partner for the European Healthy Stadia Conference at the Emirates Stadium on April 27. At the Conference, Sarah Ruane – National Strategic Lead for Health at Sport England – will give an update on the ‘Towards an Active Nation’ strategy and explain the focus on tackling inactivity. Here Sarah speaks to ConnectSport about the strategy.

Why is this such an important time for Sport England to be talking about its work, especially with regards to physical activity and health?

The Government ‘Sporting Future’ strategy, which was released in December 2015, provided us with a new remit and agenda, and reviewed why public funding is invested in sport and physical activity. It set five key outcomes, with two of them specific to health: physical and mental wellbeing. Following that, Sport England’s strategy ‘Towards an Active Nation’ was published last year and is about investing for a purpose; investing in sport and physical activity to increase the number of people who are active across our country. The conference presents us with a great opportunity to talk about the strategy, make people aware of what we are trying to achieve and ask partners for their help.

Why has Sport England’s 2017-21 strategy placed a much greater focus on ‘the inactive’?

The new strategy turns things on their head; now it’s more about how do we get those individuals who are taking part in less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, to be active. The reason for that is because we know that people who are inactive have the greatest benefit to their health if we can get them active, so 25% of our investment over the next four years will specifically target those who are ‘inactive’. That’s across a whole range of funding programmes, with some very specific targeted funding but also through our investment in children and young people, facilities and volunteering. There are many ways we can have an influence, not just in terms of the work we are doing but also working with other partners, such as Public Health England and health charities like Mind, to make sure we really do reach those people who need support the most, and get them to have more active lives.


Recent funding announcements have reflected this shift. Are you able to give some examples and explain their objectives.

The first round of our funding to tackle inactivity was focused on Active Ageing , which will see £10million invested. It has two purposes: firstly, to increase the number of inactive people aged over 55 getting active; and secondly, to understand the many reasons why those these individuals are not taking part in activity, and what support and opportunities are required to try to get them active. We had 725 expressions of interest from a whole range of partners and after a competitive process, we have got it down to 46 organisations who are moving on to the next stage. We’ve still got a little bit more to do to identify those projects we will be investing in and working with, but the shortlisted organisations have come up with a whole range of different ideas of how we might support older people to get active. We are focusing first on Active Aging because 36% of those people over the age of 55 are inactive compared to 26% of the general population, and we know that as you get older you are more and more likely to be inactive.

Another fund due to be launched soon is focused on families, because one of things which we felt was missing and presented a real opportunity for us was around how you get children and young people active with their families; Mum and Dad but also grandparents, older siblings and whoever children class as their family. It’s about building positive experiences for those children, so they are much more likely to be active now and in the future. We really want to target families in lower socio-economic groups . We know there are under-represented groups in the population that are much more likely to be inactive, or place sport and physical activity as a much lower priority. We want to really understand and support those individuals.

I think we have made significant headway even in the last year working with both existing partners and also with new and different organisations that we may not have worked with before, and it is sparking a very different kind of conversation. That doesn’t mean there isn’t lots more to do, there most certainly is.


The Government strategy has been described as ‘organisationally neutral’, with funding going to those organisations which can provide the outcomes required, whoever they are. What does this mean for organisations outside of the traditional sports sector, for example public health?

Two key principles from our strategy are around behaviour change and making sure we are customer-focused. That is why it is so important that the starting point is your audience, and the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign is a great example of that. It’s about first understanding what the barriers are for your particular audience. What are their motivations, where do they go, who do they listen to, and what might they respond to? What support is required to get that individual to move from ‘inactive’ to ‘active’ – and then keep them active as well, which is another challenge. So it’s about us building the picture of the individual, and then designing services based on their wants and needs. It’s about starting with the customer. So when we do that we naturally come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter who the organisation is, it’s about what they can achieve. For example, if they can successfully engage with, and change the behaviour of the audience we are trying to reach.

There will be a real mixture of partners. There are a lot of physical activity organisations which are already very good at what they do, and supporting those individuals, and it will often be a partnership or combination of organisations. The Active Ageing Fund reflects that, because we have got a really broad range of organisations interested in working with us.

It has been reported that Sport England will announce its participation targets for 2020 soon; is there any intention to report the impact of the strategy on public health?

We are still working on what targets to set. There will certainly be one around increasing the number of people who reach the 150 minutes of moderate activity each week, which is recommended by the Chief Medical Officer. There will also be something around reducing the number of people who are inactive.

What is the purpose of those targets? Is it to demonstrate the value of sport and physical activity to other Government departments, eg health and transport, in order for them to invest more in the sector?

The conversations we are having tend to be cross-Government already, for example we have a very close working relationship with Public Health England. We have recently partnered with them [Public Health England] to produce a ‘Moving Healthcare Professional’ programme, which enables GPs, nurses and other health care professionals to understand more about the value of physical activity and supports them to talk to their patients about it.

In those scenarios we are obviously trying to be in a position where we have a credible evidence base so we can encourage ongoing investment, and investment from other partners, whether that is across Government or other organisations. So sustainability has to be a key part of any investment we are making. How can we build the evidence base in such a way that we can genuinely say we are influencing the system and changing the culture? We don’t have an infinite amount of money, so we need to influence the system and work with more partners to help increase physical activity levels across the nation.

Click here to book your place at the European Healthy Stadia Conference 2017.

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