Impact of free access to leisure facilities and community outreach on inequalities in physical activity: a quasi-experimental study

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Abstract

Background

There are large inequalities in levels of physical activity in the UK, and this is an important determinant of health inequalities. Little is known about the effectiveness of community-wide interventions to increase physical activity and whether effects differ by socioeconomic group.

Methods

We conducted interrupted time series and difference-in-differences analyses using local administrative data and a large national survey to investigate the impact of an intervention providing universal free access to leisure facilities alongside outreach and marketing activities in a deprived local authority area in the northwest of England. Outcomes included attendances at swimming and gym sessions, self-reported participation in gym and swim activity and any physical activity.

Results

The intervention was associated with a 64% increase in attendances at swimming and gym sessions (relative risk 1.64, 95% CI 1.43 to 1.89, P<0.001), an additional 3.9% of the population participating in at least 30 min of moderate-intensity gym or swim sessions during the previous four weeks (95% CI 3.6 to 4.1) and an additional 1.9% of the population participating in any sport or active recreation of at least moderate intensity for at least 30 min on at least 12 days out of the last four weeks (95% CI 1.7 to 2.1). The effect on gym and swim activity and overall levels of participation in physical activity was significantly greater for the more disadvantaged socioeconomic group.

Conclusions

The study suggests that removing user charges from leisure facilities in combination with outreach and marketing activities can increase overall population levels of physical activity while reducing inequalities.

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