- Greg Whyte warns activity levels likely to fall even further
- ‘We can’t underplay how damaging this could be’
Britain is heading for a “perfect storm” in which a further reduction in activity levels during the winter lockdown has a disastrous effect on physical and mental health, a world-leading sports scientist has said.
Greg Whyte, a former Olympian in modern pentathlon who has also worked as consultant physiologist in Olympic and professional sports, also criticised the government for not listening to experts – or doing enough to get the nation healthier.
“The first lockdown led to a reduction in activity even though there was glorious weather last spring,” he told the Guardian. “So with a winter lockdown we’ve got almost the perfect storm for a dramatic reduction in physical activity. Alongside that is the impact it will have on people’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. We can’t underplay how damaging this lockdown could be for national health.”
Whyte, who deals with the government regularly as a scientific adviser to ukactive, questioned why most grassroots sports and activity in England – except walking, running and cycling – had been stopped when many could still safely go ahead with social-distancing measures in place.
“One problem is that the government has no exercise specialists advising them,” he added. “Take a look at the makeup of Sage. I’ve spent a long time talking with DCMS. They have some great people, as have Sport England, but the government doesn’t listen to them. That has to change.”
There is mounting frustration within sports such as golf, tennis and angling, where it is straightforward to maintain social distancing, that they have been forced to stop in England. Those frustrations have been exacerbated by Scotland’s lockdown being less restrictive and allowing golf, tennis, angling and some sport for under-12s.
The government was also urged to do more to help young people stay active by the Youth Sport Trust. “We know that young people’s activity levels plummeted during the first lockdown, and this has contributed to some of the issues they are now facing – from mental health difficulties and low levels of physical fitness to developmental delay,” its chief executive, Ali Oliver, said. “Over the coming weeks a virtual PR curriculum focused on recovery should be a priority. This could be a game-changer for young people’s wellbeing.”
Whyte also urged adults to be given more support to get active too, especially given that 400,000 people who work within the fitness sector in the UK are currently being told to stay at home.
“We talk a lot in this country about the Couch to 5K programme,” he added. “But actually the biggest problem we have in UK society is couch to the front door – the fact that 22 million people in this country do less than 30 minutes of activity a week. And when you think that the recommendation is 30 minutes a day, the government has to do more to provide solutions for people who are inactive.”
On Tuesday the government announced that gyms could apply for £9,000 in government grants. However, Sarah Lindsay, a three-times Olympian in short-track speed-skating who now runs the Roar fitness chain of gyms, told the Guardian that was nowhere near enough.
“So many of us are going to go out of business because we don’t have an awful lot of cashflow,” she said. “We still have rent and bills to play and the government is not doing enough to help. They have to realise we are one of the solutions to getting the country healthy again.”
Andy Lane, a sports psychologist, warned of the dangers to mental health if people are restricted in their activity. “If you feel it’s not worth it, and it might require a great deal of effort to do exercise, then your physical and mental health will suffer,” he said. “What makes this worse is the background of a pandemic where this so much uncertainty, frustration and where hope feels squashed.”