A programme to improve the health and wellbeing of homeless and vulnerable people aged over 55 across London has been nominated for the prestigious London Sport Awards.

The Sport and Health Programme, run by Single Homeless Project and funded by Sport England, is one of only a handful of initiatives chosen from 315 nominations for the Physical Activity for Health Award at the London Sport Awards 2019.

The Award recognises projects, programmes, campaigns or initiatives that help to raise awareness and enhance the impact of physical activity on promoting good health among London’s population. The winner will be announced at a high profile ceremony at Twickenham Stadium on 14 March.

The Sport and Health Programme aims to get homeless people who have inactive lifestyles - a group frequently overlooked by public health initiatives - more active and involved in physical activity.

Working with 600 inactive Londoners who are 55 or over and homeless or at risk of homelessness, the three-year programme will support them to tap into the transformative power of sport and physical activity, in order to prolong their lives, improve mental health and reduce isolation.

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. For people with inactive  lifestyles, even 30 minutes of physical activity a week can significantly improve health and longevity.

Life changing results

A nine month pilot has already demonstrated exciting results, showing major health gains among a section of the population that mainstream health and sport services have struggled to reach - including those with chronic physical conditions, substance use needs, mental health needs and histories of rough sleeping.

Of 63 participants in the nine month pilot, 87 per cent were still active after six months, with some even joining local gyms and community centres in addition to their regular sessions. Health checks showed significant benefits in key areas such as weight, blood pressure and handgrip strength, while 75 per cent of participants reported improvements in their mental health.

It’s hoped the programme could serve as a model for developing more effective strategies to tackle some of the shocking health inequalities that persist among socially excluded people in the UK.

Vanessa Hemmings, SHP’s Assistant Director of Services and Opportunities, said: “We are thrilled to be nominated for this award, which we hope will help promote the exciting outcomes we and our clients are achieving even at this early stage.  Above all, our programme is proving that once you begin to break down the barriers they face, vulnerable and socially excluded people will seize the opportunity with both hands to take greater control of their own health and wellbeing.

“People who would never have imagined themselves going near a gym or exercise club are now enjoying the benefits of being active. For some, leaving behind an inactive lifestyle to take up even moderate activity is a big step and potentially life changing.”

A varied and accessible menu of activities

Service users were offered a varied menu of sports and activities, from football, rock climbing and boxing to more moderate activities such as aerobics and yoga.  To make sessions as accessible as possible, Single Homeless Project has created activity hubs, complete with exercise equipment, at drop-in centres and homeless hostels across London.

Vanessa Hemmings added: “When we started the pilot, the received wisdom was that keeping physically active was a low priority for this group and that engaging them would be especially challenging, but we’ve seen an enormously positive response. The key has been flexibility, supporting people to create fitness and wellbeing plans that are tailored to their personal circumstances, needs and aspirations.  As a result we’re seeing real benefits for both physical and mental health, reducing isolation, boosting confidence, and assisting people’s wider recovery.”

The programme is being evaluated by a team of experts led by Dr Mike Loosemore, MBE, of the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health, currently Sports Physician to the British Boxing and Snow Sports teams.

Over the next two years the project aims to engage 600 homeless or socially excluded over 55’s in London, with a target of 80 per cent to still be active after six months.

Sport England has funded the programme from its Active Ageing fund, which was launched to tackle inactivity in the over 55s as part of the national strategy Towards An Active Nation.