Council considers free gym membership for obese benefit claimants

Is this fair on taxpayers?

Updated: 
Obesity

Unemployed people in one of the UK's fattest counties may be offered free gym membership at the taxpayer's expense.

Worcestershire County Council is currently considering a plan to offer overweight people on benefits free or discounted gym passes, inspired by a similar scheme in Camden, north London called Give It A Go.

According to Public Health England, around a quarter of adults in Worcestershire are obese and a third of children are overweight by the time they leave primary school.

And in an attempt to deal with this and other health problems, Worcestershire plans to spend £132 million on public health this year - 40% of its total budget.

The gym scheme could cost as much as £1.35 million a year, it's reported, with up to 3,765 benefit claimants eligible. Other elements of the plan include the creation of new cycle lanes and encouraging GPs to 'prescribe' fitness classes to obese people.

But during a meeting, councillor Kit Taylor criticised the proposal for free gym membership.

"We have some of the most beautiful countryside in the country, we have fields, canals, forests," he said. "You don't need to spend money, why doesn't this document say 'get off your bottom and walk?'"

And it's worth noting that the Camden scheme hasn't been as effective as hoped. Of the 725 people signed up during the last recruitment drive, only 160 were still attending the gym after four months.

However, there's widespread agreement that something has to be done about the UK's obesity crisis. Type 2 diabetes alone - generally triggered by obesity - costs the NHS £10 billion a year.

Other council initiatives to combat the problem have included the sending of motivational texts, with Stoke-on-Trent Council launching a £10,000 scheme last year to suggest walking to the shops or eating smaller portions to overweight residents.

Earlier this year, the NHS announced plans to offer free gym sessions and advice on healthy eating to 100,000 overweight people around the UK.

But prime minister David Cameron is keen to use the stick as well as the carrot to persuade the UK to lose weight. Last year, he launched a review into the costs of obesity and addiction, and is considering a plan to force people on benefits to seek treatment or risk losing their payments.

Worcestershire will make a decision on the proposal for free gym membership next month.

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