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Malcolm McPhail

The CEO of Life Leisure talks to Kate Cracknell about his successful actiLife programme and how it's spawned the new actiSport initiative

by Kate Cracknell | Published in Sports Management 2014 issue 3
Malcolm McPhail set out the concept of actiLife in 2009
Malcolm McPhail set out the concept of actiLife in 2009

“What we've done at Stockport proves that tapping into the 87 per cent of people who are physically inactive can be commercially viable,” says Malcolm McPhail, CEO of Life Leisure – a not for profit social enterprise that runs 16 sports and leisure centres. The former British Counties Champion runner and PE teacher is referring to the transformation he and his Life Leisure team have overseen at Avondale Leisure Centre in Stockport.

Five years ago, the ageing centre had just 500 members and the site was losing £170,000 a year. McPhail, already frustrated by the public health commissioners' failure to recognise the importance of getting people more active, was keen to try a completely new approach. Avondale was to become a test bed.

“The centre was earmarked for closure and it was the last throw of the dice,” says McPhail. "So we invested £250k and decided to do the complete opposite of what has been done in this industry."

He and his team came up with the concept of a local ‘health hub’. The physical environment was changed: mirrors removed, partition walls brought in to offer privacy, bariatric chairs introduced and an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill acquired to help larger individuals exercise. The programming was overhauled, with new schedules introduced utilising the pool for water-based activities and classes such as Legs Bums Tums given prime-time slots.

“You could say Avondale is more of a self-help centre than a health club” McPhail explains. “We take inactive people and talk about discipline, because that’s what they need if they want to change their behaviour. We make them aware what they’re doing is an important change in their lives. For us to be successful, we need to educate – we can’t just tell people to go on a treadmill and run for three minutes, we need to tell them why they need to run or walk and what the benefits are.”

Winning form
The results have been nothing short of remarkable. Membership at Avondale is now up to 1,500 and the centre is on-track to turn a profit next year. The rapid increase in the number of members has been largely down to the centre being able to attract people from the 87 per cent of the public who were previously physically inactive. As a result of its achievements, the concept has tapped into new funding streams and it’s now held up as a best practice example within the borough and beyond.  

At the heart of the Avondale experiment was a pilot scheme known as actiLife – essentially a ‘back to activity’ scheme that targeted local residents who were either overweight or felt too intimidated to use a gym. It was designed to start people off by getting them walking, with a specially-designed walking programme and team members dedicated to leading sessions.

McPhail explains: “Public health departments have confused the public by giving conflicting messages in the past, not to mention campaigns suggesting that all people need to do to get healthy is to walk. Walking isn’t enough, but it is the first step on the journey to health and fitness.”

A total of 300 participants were recruited onto the ‘pre-membership’ scheme via a range of channels, including GP referrals and links with the local housing association and job centre. Running over a period of 12 months – actiLife was one of the interventions monitored in the year-long ukactive Research Institute study of 2012 – the results were impressive: 33 per cent of participants reported a decrease in weight and blood pressure, 75 per cent reported being more active, and 90 per cent said they would recommend the programme to a friend. Most important of all, they all felt more aware of their activity levels and more confident about taking responsibility for their own activity and weight in the future.

“You can’t expect these people to come straight to the gym,” McPhail adds. “You need an industrial-sized concept or intervention that just gets them interested in physical activity more broadly.”

Template for sport
According to McPhail, the model is something that could be replicated by any operator in the country, whether public or private sector. The model can also be made to work using sport.

Life Leisure itself is now looking to mirror the success of actiLife in a new pilot, actiSport, which takes the same walking-based approach but as a re-entry point into sport rather than gym-based activity. Supported with new funding from Sport England, it’s currently also offered through Avondale, which has introduced sessions such as walking football as a way to bridge the gap between inactivity and full-blown sport for sedentary people.

“One of the things that came through the consultations we did with individuals through actiLife was that sport was at the heart of what they wanted to do," says McPhail. "Sport and recreation has lost a lot of ground to health and fitness, a lot of people who were playing five-a-side and badminton have come round to the thinking that there is greater benefits by using their energy in health and fitness. So the health and fitness market to a certain extent has gained at the expense of the sport and recreation market.”

Going forward, the aim is for the full package – the actiLife and actiSport programmes, new software being developed to support them, and advice on the physical offering – to be made available to other Life Leisure sites, as well as to new contracts beyond Stockport. The decision is yet to be made if this will be offered on a franchise basis or as a commissionable package.

Personal journey
Besides the commercial rationale, McPhail also has a very personal reason for broadening the reach of his centres. He may now be a CEO who has successfully grown his business from a turnover of £3.5m when he joined in 2007 to £11.5m in 2013, but his childhood was a tough one.

“I came from a single parent family, I spent some time in care, my father was an alcoholic, I used to stand in free school meal queues being identified as poor and different from everyone else.

"When I questioned this, I was always told ‘that’s just the way it is’, and I developed a hatred for that statement even as a child. Even today, it drives me to challenge tradition and conventionalism. For me, ‘that’s the way it is’ isn’t acceptable as an answer to anything. Fortunately for me, I was also a reasonable athlete: I was British Counties Champion and held numerous Scottish titles at 400m and the 400m hurdles. Sport gave me the discipline and focus to be able to make my life what I wanted it to be.

“So now I’m in a position where I can make a difference, although it sounds a cliché, that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to just provide sport and fitness only for the people who can afford it. I also want to give opportunities to people like myself.

“In any case, at some point everybody in the sector has to get sick and tired of fighting over the same people – the same 13 per cent. In a way I’m now glad the budget operators came along and forced us to rethink our model, because they can have the fit, healthy 16- to 25-year-olds. Their arrival has forced me into making steps to go after the other percentage of the population, the silent majority, and I’m over the moon about it.”

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