I have just ended my subscription to my local council Gym after 13 months. The only reason really is that I am moving soon, however, I was surprised by the changes in subscription rate that have occurred since I signed up. It has made me think of how others might sustain healthy activity at their local council facility now that costs are rising.
I was on a limited times subscription, which gave me access to the ‘fitness suite’ and swimming as long as I checked in before 2pm each weekday (no restriction at weekends). This suited me fine, as I like to get it over with in the morning and I had settled into a pattern of, most days, having a jog and then visiting the gym. I was using the facility about 4 or 5 times a week – and attained my goal, incidentally, of losing two and a half stone in the process. I don’t like swimming really, so usually it was a case of using equipment in the fitness suite – all, I must say, was excellent and of good quality. It was not equipped with the latest all-singing stuff, but what was there was plentiful, robust and safe to use and I really enjoyed it. The subscription model worked for me, and encouraged me to go more often than I otherwise would – much like when I spent a year in France in my early twenties and was able to get a 10-visit pass for the swimming baths. I actually managed to teach myself to swim by doing that, by making it a regular part of my routine, without feeling I was paying a fortune for the privilege.
Back to the present day, for all this fun, I averaged out at about £1 per visit throughout my subscription, and even if I had only used it half as much, I would have judged it to be good value. Certainly, it was a slightly better deal than the University facilities available, which I could use if I wanted to as a Ph.D. student. Years ago when I was an M.Ed., the same facilities at the University had actually been free. Predictably though, much that used to be available for free is now provided at a charge as every budget line has to balance in its own right.
As I was filling out the leaver’s form at the council gym, the assistant told me that the subscription I had had was no longer available. On examining the current subscriptions on offer, I was astonished to find that prices had actually at least doubled, if not trebled. Indeed, a visit to the gym on a twice a week basis would cost over £4. This does, of course, reinforce what a good deal I had got, but it also saddened me to think of people in the future being put off joining their local council gym due to the cost, even on a subscription.
Throughout my 13 months, I have to say, I seldom spoke to anyone, as individuals tended to simply get on with their workouts and you’d just smile at people in recognition. A little banter went on in the changing room between some, but I was not one to strike up a conversation whilst soaping myself in the shower. However, the gym had many regulars, often obviously retired people, who benefited from the facility and who were regular attendees. I expect many of these up till now had enjoyed good value subscriptions and felt they could fit the fitness activities into their lives on a regular basis. It is sad, then, that someone trying to join today, would not be encouraged by prices which, essentially, would mean them spending close to £400 rather than £200 a year.
In my gym, there were plenty of people who could have been categorised as in the ‘Third Age’ – and they were enjoying the benefits of a good facility that was helping them to maintain a full and active life. Plenty of people younger than the people I saw at the gym were not as fit as the ‘Third Agers’ were. The swimming pool isn’t the best I’ve seen, but it at least had dedicated lanes for people to do serious continued swimming and was big enough (not olympic-sized) for non-laners to be out of the way. A safe environment where people can develop their own fitness on professional grade equipment makes all the difference. The implications to the health service and society in general are not inconsiderable in this respect. However, one aspect of health is fitness, and regular activity is key to sustaining fitness, The gym (including the swimming pool) provides a valuable opportunity for many people to exercise in safety, to socialise and to avoid the limitations of the weather, and is a service which should be provided for all communities. Most of the people who attended the gym were people who either have, or continue to contribute to the economy through their taxes – able to do so for longer, perhaps, because their fitness has been maintained. Why, then, do we see councils treating health facilities as businesses trying to make money out of the very people who already own them?
What we are seeing is, of course, the withdrawal of subsidies for ‘non-essential’ services – but if this means a rise of over 100% in costs for users in just over a year, then we have to consider seriously the implications. Bean-counting exercises are all very well, but I can see council gym attendance by Third Age adults dropping drastically under the new subscription rates, which are simply not cheap enough for people to feel they can justify them. Indeed, current rates are not far off some of the rates of private gyms, but public facilities should be available at a reasonable cost less than private facilities so people have a choice. Even though the bean-counters may assume people may go elsewhere. The difference, I guess, is simply between Public and Private services, and running Public services as Private Services is not the absolute solution. If the fitness of Third Age adults is no longer encouraged, then we will end up paying in other ways, surely.
There are some people who couldn’t understand why I never went private and instead used my local council gym. Well, it was so that I could do exactly what I have done here, and make some kind of first-hand judgement as to how worthwhile such a facility is. I would have paid twice the price elsewhere over the last 13 months, but the next 13 months would have been well over the higher price anyway.
Councils must not fall into the trap of presuming that everyone can be encouraged to stay fit and healthy by being expected to part with a fiver on a regular basis, as it all adds up to a sizable amount of money. Even when their facilities are run by organisations on their behalf, they need to check what is actually going on. As I said, I count myself fortunate to have benefitted at just over £1 per visit – something which drove me on to make use of the facility. Whatever anybody says, for regular activity, the cost can easily add up.