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Junk food in leisure centres ‘unethical’, says public health expert

By Jak Phillips    16 May 2016
Many observers believe the physical activity sector should be doing more to lead the fight against unhealthy eating / Deymos.HR / Shutterstock.com

Leisure centres should curtail the “unethical” selling of junk food if they want to be taken seriously as a provider of public health schemes such as exercise referrals.

That’s the view of Green Gym MD Craig Lister, who believes leisure centres have to offer healthy food as the primary choice in cafes and vending machines, not just as “a token gesture.” He thinks healthy food should be promoted first and be available for at least the same price or cheaper than unhealthy options, which should be limited and restricted.

Lister, a physiologist who has held senior roles in both the fitness and public health sectors, says leisure centres are failing vulnerable exercise referral patients – many of whom have eating issues – by not offering a 360-degree health proposition.

“I still see so many centres offering bad food and I’ve had obese clients who have called me in tears because they’ve gone to the gym and they’ve walked past the vending machines and bought sweet stuff – they didn’t want to, but unfortunately they didn’t have the willpower to resist,” Lister told Health Club Management

“And in my view, it’s unethical to put people in for exercise referral and say ‘we’re going to make you better’ and then offer poor food choices. To say we are going to provide patients ‘health’ through exercise referral and then not offer health in a holistic manner is an issue that should be addressed.”

Although exercise referrals have so far enjoyed only limited success, exercise professionals are eager to play a more active role in helping to lighten the load on the NHS by providing preventative treatments. Public health delivery is becoming an increasingly important focus for the physical activity sector, with the chance to become a frontline public health delivery partner having previously been identified as an £8bn opportunity for the industry.

Lister added that, although difficult at first, switching to healthy offerings is not a complex shift to make and by doing so, leisure centres will present themselves in a more favourable light to GPs, hospitals and CCGs, who will be more inclined to work with them.

He said the argument that reducing junk offerings will impact on operators' secondary spend is superfluous, noting that there was no impact when healthy food was brought to the fore during his time at Jubilee Hall Trust.

The government has started to take a tougher stance on junk food in the past few years and recently announced a surprise tax on sugary drinks, with the proceeds to be used to fund school sport.

However, many observers believe the physical activity sector should be doing more to lead the fight against unhealthy eating by providing better nutritional advice and offering healthier food options in health clubs.

“The scandal around junk food companies has been a huge embarrassment for our industry,” Les Mills International CEO Phillip Mills told Health Club Management recently.

“Sugar is becoming the new tobacco and it’s our responsibility as an industry to lobby for this and educate people about how to eat better.”

Junk food  leisure centres  public health  Craig Lister 
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