The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (“the College”) is calling for the introduction of free gym memberships for 16 to 24 year olds in the most deprived parts of Scotland, in its manifesto for the Scottish Parliament election.

The College says that the policy can help to maintain and improve physical exercise for school leavers both short term, and longer term.

Boosting exercise is more important than ever, given that people who suffer from obesity and diabetes are more likely to become seriously ill after contracting COVID-19.

A recent report by the Princes Trust highlighted that people under 25 account for three in five of the jobs lost during the pandemic – making it harder for many in that age group to afford a gym membership, particularly those from poorer backgrounds.

The College proposes introducing the “free gym membership” policy on a trial basis for 16 to 24 year olds living in the most deprived areas (known as decile 1), with a view to expanding the policy to 16 to 24 year olds living in other areas, if successful.

There is a strong health and economic rationale for introducing such a policy. Analysis by the College (see notes) estimates that it could cost up to £26.4m per annum if it were taken up by all 16 to 24 year olds living in decile 1 areas, based on the UK average membership fee of approximately £40 a month.

However, the cost of this could be reduced by working with local authority leisure providers which usually offer cheaper membership fees than the UK average.

The College is calling for the policy to be included in party manifestos for the Scottish Parliament election, and would welcome engagement on the policy with Scotland’s political parties.

Professor Angela Thomas, acting president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said:

As we begin to think about the post-covid recovery of health services, we must consider new ways to improve the health of the nation.

One of the ways to improve health is through exercise, with an awareness of the economic barriers that people often experience. We know that exercise can improve not only physical health, but mental health too.

While it is of course vital that we encourage appropriate forms of exercise among all age groups, we note that the 16-24 year old demographic is least likely to be able to afford a gym membership – particularly those living in the poorest communities and who are unemployed or on low pay.

Our analysis estimates that providing 16-24 year olds in the poorest communities with a free gym membership could cost up to £26.4m – and that’s assuming that everyone takes up the offer. The reality is that the cost could be less, particularly if the next Scottish Government resolved to working with local authorities to provide free gym access.

We believe that for political parties to include this in their manifestos, ahead of the Scottish Parliament election in May, would present a new way of establishing a healthier lifestyle for young people.

  1. The College’s election manifesto can be read here.
  2. According to NRS data there are approximately 55,000 16-24 year olds living in the most deprived parts of Scotland (known as decile 1).
  3. The UK average monthly gym membership cost is approximately £40, according to the Money Advice Service.
  4. Giving everyone in the 16-24 age group (within decile 1 qualifying areas/postcodes in Scotland) a free gym membership could cost up to £26.4m annually.
  5. The policy could cost even less by working with local authorities to provide free gym access. For example, Fife Leisure (Fife Council) membership is from £18.85 per month and Highland Life (Highland Council) membership is from £20.60 per month.
  6. If the policy were to be extended to all 16-24 years olds in all Scotland (of which there are approximately 568,000), it could cost up to £272.6m annually based on the UK average gym membership cost.
  7. Health and wellbeing benefits for this important demographic who could develop an early healthy relationship with physical activity.
  8. A BBC article about the Princes Trust report can be found here.
  9. The figures outlined above are approximate and are based on calculations.