Online classes to help get Wolverhampton active – and tackle obesity

Hero Profile - Sean

Meet Sean McBurney, Head of Leisure at Wolverhampton City Council.

Sean starts his day with a run, not a commute; not just because the leisure centres he operates for Wolverhampton City Council are currently closed, but because he’s a great role model and really keen on exercise. He uses an app to clock up his runs – 150 miles this month alone! This is the story of how, despite the pandemic, Sean and his 85 strong team continue to help people to be active, and how they plan to reopen the centres when it’s safe.

Sean remembers an April Government Coronavirus Briefing with Professor Chris Whitty, the Government’s chief medical advisor. The professor promoted the benefits of exercise to the nation; being physically active is ‘very important to long-term health’ and ‘crucial to keep people fighting fit during the pandemic’. As well as being a valid reason to leave home in lockdown, Chris also said that there was ‘a lot of exercise people could do in their own homes.’

They took their classes online when the leisure centres closed

That’s where Sean and his team come in. They took their classes online when they closed their centres – ahead of the Government instruction to do so. They sent all 10,000 members links to tailored exercise programmes created by their staff, all available for free on the popular WV Active website and their Instagram and their Facebook pages. Sean has been building up the confidence of his staff, who are more comfortable in a gym helping a customer or holding a face to face class, to make exercise films for people to do at home.

Sean says, “It’s been a massive change. I’ve got gym instructors making online workouts for people to do at home. I’ve got instructors writing blogs.” One asks ‘What type of exercise should I be doing? Answer – the best exercise is the one that you’ll do – whether it’s taking the dog for an extra walk, getting up and dancing to the radio or giving yourself a press up challenge while the kettle is boiling, the more you move, the better.’ In another blog gym instructor Jerome asks, ‘How to find your motivation? Set a goal, decide what you want to achieve.’ They are very engaging and encouraging in tone and style.

Sean has also been supporting many of his staff who are doing completely different roles at the moment like helping in the Food Hub, the massive operation to get food parcels out to the vulnerable. Gym instructor, Kilroy has been sharing his experiences working at the city’s food distribution hub as a driver.

 Leisure centres will look and feel very different in the new socially distanced world

Sean’s current focus is how to reopen the leisure centres and ensure they remain safe. He’s watching the Government guidance daily and working to a provisional date in July. He knows the centres will look and feel very different in the new socially distanced world. “We’ll have fewer people in classes, people will need to book into the gym so we can observe social distancing, there will be more time needed for cleaning in between sessions too, a big change for our staff and users too,” says Sean.

Even if he can make the centres safe again, Sean knows there’s a lot of work to be done to build consumer confidence. He says, “Some of our members can’t wait to get back, others are far more cautious, they will need convincing and to see the changes we are putting in place to make the centres as safe as possible.”

Sean anticipates that the new way of working may be mix of activities in the centres and in homes – for example a class being delivered to ten people in the gym but being streamed to hundreds in their own homes at the same time. “We see our role as creating and curating content to share with our customers,” says Sean.

We need to help our communities get healthier

Sean thinks there maybe other benefits of this approach. He knows that gyms are not for everyone and one of the barriers to exercise is that many people worry what other people think of them – being able to exercise in the comfort of your living room might then help. As Sean says, “While we’ve got more members than ever the flip side is we’ve more obese people than ever before. My service used to be about just getting more people in the centres, into the swimming pools and into the gyms, now we’re about how we help our communities get healthier. We are part of how we improve public health.”

Being obese doubles the risk of needing hospital treatment for those with Covid-19

The facts back this up; obesity doubles the risk of needing hospital treatment for those with Covid-19. It is a more common cause of bowel, kidney, ovarian and liver cancer than smoking. Sean wants to see a big Government campaign put in place to get us active – and help us be healthier. There’s been some great ones in the past like ‘This Girl Can’ but more needs to be done.

Sean knows that attitudes to exercise start young so he and his team have invested in summer holiday clubs for children, young people and their families – these activities and educational resources are all online now with the WV Virtual Squad. He knows that kids are less active over the summer break – due to inactive parents. He also speaks from personal experiences as a parent of a 11 and 9-year-old. He says, “When I go to a parents’ evening about my children there’s information about their academic and social progress. Why not their physical activity too?”

And why not indeed. If exercise is so important to the health of the nation then let’s find ways to get us moving. Sean is certainly helping us do that, with the pandemic forcing a very different type of service, one that focuses much more on influencing people and persuading them to get active.

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