Duncan Stevenson

Duncan Stephenson, Director of External Affairs at the Royal Society for Public Health, reflects on the valuable role that the Exercise Professional Workforce can play in improving the public's health.

Nothing stands still when it comes to the public’s health. 

We face a relentless battle on many fronts to keep our people living longer, happier and healthier lives. On some fronts there has been incredible progress. Smoking, the main risk factor behind preventable deaths, has thankfully lost its appeal – largely as a result of hard hitting legislation, but also due to innovations such as e-cigarettes and NRT. Now fewer than 1 in 7 of us smoke, and the figure among young people is even lower.

Progress in other areas remains stagnant – obesity, referred to “as the new smoking”, continues to be a significant problem and despite some positive overtures by the Government to take action, such as the soft drinks levy, much more needs to be done to address the obesogenic environment in which we live. New threats to the public’s health continue to emerge – particularly to our mental wellbeing.

Record numbers of us are affected by anxiety, body image pressures, disrupted sleep and bullying – all exacerbated by the ever present social media platforms. And our understanding of what should be viewed through the lens of public health continues to change. Gambling, violence, drugs, knife crime – today most of these are now rightly viewed as public health issues.

With all of these challenges, it is vital that, in the absence of Government action and funding (they are busy with other matters?!) we look to who is well placed to support the public’s health. In 2015 RSPH, along with the Centre for Workforce Intelligence, mapped the size of the core public health workforce and found it to be 40,000 strong. Given the challenges we are facing; a workforce of this size simply isn’t enough to make a significant difference to our population health.

So RSPH along with Public Health England and Health Education England looked at which other professions and occupational groups could positively impact the public’s health. We estimated at least 15 million people belonged to what we called the wider public health workforce. Pharmacy teams, Allied Health Professionals, Fire Service and Housing staff are all part of this movement. But so too, is the Exercise Professional Workforce.

There are almost 60,000 exercise professionals in the UK - almost one and a half times the size of the core public health workforce. The public, and even some exercise professionals, may not consider themselves part of the public health workforce, but looking at what they do, it is clear they are instrumental, and have the potential to do even more!

Each day in communities, gyms, and workplaces health and fitness professionals are making a positive difference to population health and wellbeing. The outdated, and rather outlandish view is that they only engage the worried well, the affluent or are simply concerned with the body beautiful. On the contrary exercise professionals play a pivotal role in supporting individuals to change their behaviour.

It’s not just critiquing how someone can perform a squat or master a downward dog. Day in, day out, exercise professionals are helping to change the behaviours, improve the health and transform the lives of thousands of the public.

In our Going the Distance report with UK Active in 2018 we found that the overwhelming majority (some 85%) of exercise professionals talk to their clients about issues beyond physical fitness, and there is equally broad support among the public for such advice and support to come from this workforce.

That is why RSPH is delighted to be embarking on a partnership with Future Fit Training. The new partnership not only acknowledges the contribution health and fitness professionals make to the public’s health, but will open doors and new career opportunities for people working in health and fitness.

Our partnership will provide Future Fit learners with access to a wide range of RSPH’s suite of public health qualifications. We are beginning with the RSPH Level 4 Nutrition Qualification which covers the principles of nutrition as well as nutrition for sports and physical activity.

Interestingly according to Future Fit’s Raising the Bar report from 2018, over one third of employers in the health and fitness sector believed Personal Trainers and Fitness Instructors had gaps in their understanding of nutrition. It also identified other skills gaps – almost three quarters of employers said that their exercise professionals had limited understanding of behaviour change and social skills. These softer skills are critical in encouraging people to change their behaviour.

The RSPH Level 2 Award in Supporting Behaviour Change and the RSPH Level 2 Award in Understanding Health Improvement are the gold standard qualifications in this area, and underpin behaviour change approaches from health champions across the UK.  

As part of our partnership with Future Fit, RSPH will be developing a new Level 2 Health Improvement and fitness qualification, incorporating units for instructor circuit training and RSPH’s groundbreaking Improving the Public’s Health qualification. This new qualification will go some way to opening new doors to people who work as Exercise Professionals but want to broaden out their responsibilities or potentially move into new public health roles.

There are a whole host of new job roles out there – from health and wellbeing navigators to community locksmiths - these new roles are going to be instrumental in areas such as social prescribing, which is an important part of the NHS Long Term Plan. NHS England alone, plans to recruit some 1500 new link workers by 2020 - these might be attractive new roles for people working in health and fitness.

For those of us who know exercise professionals we recognise the passion, commitment and energy that they have. Our partnership with Future Fit will hopefully help broaden the career opportunities and job roles available to people currently working in the health and fitness sector. This will not only benefit students and professionals, but will help us continue our mission to improve and protect the public’s health.