People who are homeless experience some of the worst health outcomes in England and die 30 years earlier than the general population, with a life expectancy of just 47.
But free fitness classes offered for homeless and vulnerable people are making huge steps to improve physical health and tackle issues like loneliness and isolation.
The Sport and Health Project, created by the Single Homelessness Project with funding from Sport England, aims to transform the lives of homeless and vulnerable people through sport and physical activity.
The initiative is designed to get people more active to prolong lives and improve mental and physical health.
Research suggests that for people with inactive lifestyles, even 30 minutes of physical activity a week can significantly improve health and longevity.
Peter is one of the clients who take part in the free fitness sessions at the SHP hostel in Camden, north London. He comes every week and it has had an enormously positive impact on his life.
‘It’s not too extreme,’ he tells Metro.co.uk, ‘but it gives us a decent workout.’
‘I have Parkinson’s disease, and keeping myself in decent physical shape is one very good way of slowing down the progress of the disease. And keeping in decent shape is pretty sensible anyway.
‘I think it’s probably going to increase my lifespan – staying healthy. I was a sportsman as a young man. Really massively into sports; rugby, running – I wanted to keep that going.’
People who are homeless, or people living in hostels is an under-funded area in research, explains Professor Micheal Loosemore, professor of sports and exercise medicine at UCL and UCLH.
‘We’ve found that the interventions have been really powerful in getting people fitter and healthier and also being more engaged with their medical care,’ he tells us.
‘It has meant there needs to be less secondary care intervention, which in the wider sense will have saved society a huge amount of money because people are not having to be looked after in hospital.’
Michael has seen lots of individual cases of people making great strides with their health – mental health, addiction problems, or just physical health and strength.
‘We did a pilot study that was extremely successful, and off the back of that pilot, it has now spread across the whole of London,’ he explains. ‘From the data we have looked at so far, the data is looking really positive.
‘It looks like this way of working with and engaging with people who are homeless, seems to be very effective.’
Bill lives at the hostel in Camden and says that he attends the classes to help with his preexisting health problems.
‘I do actually have various things wrong with me,’ Bill tells us.
‘I had a dislocated shoulder, so I do need to keep on using exercise because sometimes it can stiffen up. It causes quite a few problems with sleep, so I have to do as much as I can with it, and these classes are ideal for that.
‘There are various machines available, which are good for me – like cycling. This week we actually did weights – it’s all good for me.’
The project provides a wide range of sports and physical activities, from football, rock climbing and boxing to more moderate activities such as aerobics and yoga. The sessions are available across London and evaluation of the programme has already shown major health gains among participants.
At the heart of the project is an ambitious programme which aims to engage 600 people aged over 55 in sport and physical activity over the next two years.
‘Our job at Sport England is about transforming lives through getting people active,’ says Mike Diaper, executive director for tackling inactivity at Sport England.
‘This project is really important to us because this is a group we have never been able to talk to or reach before.
‘Often, people who are homeless just can’t access health services or don’t feel confident. This has been a great way to talk to people about getting active and their health as well.’
Another other great benefit is that the sessions help people to form friendships. Mike says that just spending that time in a small group, talking, is raising confidence and tackling loneliness.
‘The assumption is made that somebody who is living on the street, who is homeless or living in a shelter, doesn’t want to be active,’ says Mike. ‘Actually, what we have found is that if you give them the opportunity – make physical activity on their terms, and they just grasp it.’
Micheal has been living in the hostel in Camden for the last ten years. He’s a huge fan of country and western music and trips to museums in London. He says these classes keep his mind and body occupied.
‘These classes get me out of my room and they keep me fit,’ Micheal tells Metro.co.uk.
‘They’re easy-going, undemanding and they keep me busy. I have made some really good friends in these classes.
‘My friend in there – with the orange shirt – he’s such a gas. He speaks about four or five languages, he speaks Russian!
‘I think he’s from Ethiopia. He was in the army, but something happened to him and he came over here. But he is such a gentle guy, he’s so funny as well.’
The key aim of this project is to ensure that this underserved section of society isn’t forgotten about.
Sport and physical activity should be accessible and available to everyone, no matter where you are in your life.
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