Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson once quipped that a week is a long time in politics. Governments may change but the wisdom of his words abides. In 2021, three weeks is more than enough time for ministers to forget their old departments.
Until September 15th, Oliver Dowden was the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. By October, he was using the Conservative party conference to insist that “people need to get off their Pelotons and back to their desks.”
The words came in response to civil servant Sarah Healy’s suggestion that using a Peloton while working from home had had a huge benefit on her wellbeing, but whatever the context, Mr Dowden’s comments ring alarm bells for what they say about the role and importance of sport and exercise in the working week.
This is not to say that there are not benefits to office based work, whether full-time or as part of a hybrid model alongside working from home. It does though seem irresponsible for someone with Mr Dowden’s job history to denigrate physical activity in this way.
One of the opportunities the pandemic has granted the world is a chance to deepen the links between exercise and work. Reduced commuting time has freed up space in the day, replacing what were often sedentary, stressful hours with moments for people to take up activities like running, walking, or home exercising. For those without showers in offices, the ability to workout from home or the doorstep at lunchtime has also expanded the amount of the day available for exercise – including in the light in winter – with no loss of working time.
In participation terms, Sports Marketing Surveys (SMS) data shows 2020 spikes in the number of adults in Great Britain taking part in sports including tennis, golf and cycling.
As for goods, in the USA, statistics from the SFIA and SMS* show that sales of equipment for home exercise rose 40% in 2020 compared to 2019. Exercise cycles, the category Mr Dowden was so withering about, surged 67%.
The idea that exercise is a form of slacking rather than a worthy accompaniment to a day’s work should be strongly denounced. Instead it should be recognised for what it is – a vital constituent part of healthy habits and routines. Progressive companies are already leading on this. Health insurance benefits that incentivise active lifestyles are commonplace. Other companies have gone further, even paying employees to exercise at work. Rather than attacking Peloton, perhaps Dowden and other bosses would be better off telling employees to get on, perhaps even funding them.
It all comes back to the notion that bosses should, as Dowden put it, “lead by example” by returning to the office. While champions of full-time office work will applaud the sentiment, might it not be the case that there are other, perhaps equally or more important ways that bosses should lead?
It would be nice, for example, if someone versed in the role of sport in the nation might lead by example in promoting exercise during the working day. It would be nice if bosses reflected on the benefits of exercise on employees’ mental and physical health. It would be nice if they might appreciate how those benefits in turn boost employers in a virtuous circle, creating happier, more productive, and fitter employees who need less time off sick. Moves by health organisations, including the NHS, to mandate sport – whether parkruns, bikes and electric bikes or golf – through ‘social prescription’ are a step in the right direction on this. They are an important reminder of what exercise can do for public and personal health, especially in a country where 67% of men and 60% of women are obese and where the rate of hospital admissions where obesity was a factor was 23% higher by 2020 than in 2018. Dowden’s comments are a step backwards.
There are elements of the pre-pandemic world that many will wish back. A lack of time for exercise should not be one of them.
*Figures taken from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) Manufacturers’ Sales by Category Report 2021, produced by SMS.