Why data-enabled insight is the key to an active nation

As nonprofit physical activity body ukactive this week launches the second iteration of its Fit-Tech accelerator ActiveLab, ukactive CEO Steven Ward explains how the benefits of open data can help tackle the global physical inactivity crisis

By Steven Ward

With consumers’ money, time and attention at a greater premium than ever before, physical activity providers have got their work cut out if they want to attract the public. Today, we face more distractions than ever – and that’s before you even look up from your smartphone.

But while the proliferation of mobile devices has changed the way we access services – such as navigating from A to B, ordering takeaways, or even dating – accessing sport and physical activity offerings remains a stubbornly arduous process, with out-of-date websites and incomplete timetables compounding the pain. No wonder humans are less active than ever before – we can order in KFC without leaving the sofa, but booking a badminton court to burn off these calories can be tougher than catching said chicken would be.

The need for concerted action is pressing. Physical inactivity causes twice as many deaths as obesity, according to the University of Cambridge, while British government figures estimate inactivity costs the UK economy alone £20bn each year. Living a sedentary lifestyle significantly increases risk of up to 20 conditions including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, cancers and mental health problems.

How digital innovation can help

It doesn’t have to be this way. In the same way that innovative companies have allayed the headaches of travel, eating and meeting partners, so too can gyms and leisure centres adopt digital innovations to drive business through their doors.

Open data is key to this; by collaborating and sharing more information about their services, physical activity providers can make exercise the natural choice above non-physical leisure activities and help millions unlock the health benefits of a fun and active lifestyle. A standardised approach to integration between activity providers and third parties seeking to drive traffic their way will make partnerships easier and drive the growth of the industry.

At a time when sedentary habits are placing unprecedented strain on the NHS and local social care services by causing major diseases such as stroke, type-II diabetes and dementia, there is a growing sentiment that gyms and leisure centres have the chance to step forth and become the preventative frontline of health care. Driven by the growth of ukactive’s gym, technology and equipment supplier members, our industry has gone from being perceived as a niche lifestyle sector to a £7.7bn behemoth acknowledged by government as being integral to the future health of our nation and economy. And if physical activity operators make the data they hold open and available in standardised formats, they can fulfil this potential and transform the health of communities.

Encouragingly, strides are already being taken towards this. A growing number of gym and leisure centre operators are feeding their information into the DataHub platform – a collaborative project between ukactive, 4global and other partners – which aggregates data to achieve shared objectives, such as increasing participation levels and commercial return from programmes and facilities. DataHub offers insights into consumer fitness preferences for businesses to improve their offering, but the growing acceptance of data-sharing among operators is a promising sign that similar benefits may soon be harnessed to easily identify activity opportunities for consumers in their local area.

Meanwhile, physical activity accelerators like ukactive’s ActiveLab (which opens this week) and the OpenActive Accelerator are helping to develop innovative startups with the potential to transform the sector and facilitate greater collaboration.

As a data geek myself, I cannot stress the importance of driving this agenda: data partnerships have the potential to be a game-changer. A comprehensive approach to sharing data can empower the physical activity sector to transform society by unlocking health opportunities for key demographics – such as older adults – that could bring significant NHS and social care savings. A recent ukactive report found that supporting over-65s to meet recommended exercise guidelines could save the NHS more than £12bn in treatment costs and prevent up to 600,000 major diseases such as heart disease, dementia, type-II diabetes and cancers over the next decade.

Across all age groups, data partnerships form a central pillar of ukactive’s mission to foster happier, healthier and wealthier communities across the UK. What’s more, we’ll be able to book a Pilates class as quickly as we can order a pizza.

If you have ideas or experience in open data that you'd like to share, pitch us a blog or tweet us at @ODIHQ.