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29 January 2015

Fitter, happier, more productive: how to make London a sporting city for all

Opening up sport for everyone in the capital.

By Tessa Jowell

It’s only January but we may have already seen the social media campaign of the year. Just weeks after its launch Sport England’s #ThisGirlCan campaign video has been viewed over 12m times on Facebook and YouTube. The message is clear – in their words, “This Girl Can is here to inspire women to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.”

The power of the video is in a simple truth. Sport England research found that a fear of judgement – whether they look right, whether they are doing it right – puts women of all ages off exercising.

75 per cent of women want to be more active, but new figures today show that in London 400,000 fewer women get involved than men. It’s time for that to change.

Here in London we are the home of world sport: we have just hosted the greatest Olympics of all time and we present more elite competition than anywhere else on the planet. But our goals have to be about much more than the very top. We need to open sport up to everyone.

But today, the talent of millions of young girls is suppressed because they don’t like how they look. Commercial pressure and social pressure are holding women back and it’s time to break free. Their right is to be who they are and sport is a great route to building confidence. That’s why this campaign is so important.

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And of course boosting self-esteem isn’t the only positive: getting more people into sport is good for all of society in three key ways.

First – the obvious. Sport is great for fitness and wellbeing. It doesn’t just help to boost self-esteem and confidence – though it does – being active helps us lead healthier and happier lives. And of course first and foremost sport is fun. Getting involved is a good thing to do for its own sake, we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

Second, a more active population can reduce the strain on our public services. Sport helps prevent ill-health requiring hospitalisation, delay the need for care in older adults and reduce health inequalities.

And finally sport can play a crucial role in strengthening local communities. From the outside looking in local clubs and fitness groups can seem closed and intimidating but from the inside they are a fantastic way to bring people together. The biggest hurdle of all is often simply walking through the door in the first place.

It’s a paradox of big cities that larger populations can give rise to greater feelings of isolation and loneliness. Rather than offering a way out, the sense that other people are somehow already out there enjoying each others’ company can actually exacerbate the problem.

Building one London not two means breaking down the barriers that leave people feeling excluded, creating a city where everyone feels they can take part.

Just look at the success of Parkrun, it’s a phenomenon across London. Forty-five sites and growing, where people of all abilities get together to keep fit and have fun – and make friends of their neighbours at the same time.

I want to see more projects like that, and more ways for people to take part, and I think the Mayor’s office should stand behind it.

So here’s a start: let’s put free-to-use community gyms in every major park in London. Let’s ensure that everyone has easy access to quality equipment.

But that’s only a start. This mustn’t be a case of simply plonking down the equipment and then walking away satisfied with our own fine work. I want London to use sport to help bind communities together.

The lesson from London’s Olympic gamesmakers was that given the right project people want to get involved. As one gamesmaker put it to me, “you’ll be amazed what people are prepared to do for society if they don’t feel like government is forcing them into it”.

So why aren’t there more initiatives to help people not only join in but volunteer as well? We can do better, we should do better and if we get things right over the next five years we will do better – much better. 

The benefits are clear – getting more people into sport can help make London a fitter, healthier, happier city for us all. That’s a prize worth striving for.

Tessa Jowell is Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood

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