Tim Howells is an athlete and coach who works with England Athletics’ Run! Project, encouraging community participation in sport. Here he tells us about the project and his work with the ISEH.

ISEH: Can you tell us about your work and how it links to the ISEH?

TH: There are three ways I’m working with the ISEH. The first one is the Run! project. We’ve got people called ‘Athletics activators’ who are currently working across sixteen different London boroughs to engage inactive people in some form of athletics, whether that’s running, our fitness product that we offer or traditional track and field

We’re also potenitally working with the ISEH on Sport England’s Get Healthy Get Active project. That’s looking at how sport and national governing bodies can work more closely with health organisations, medical institutions, hospitals, universities and the like so that the offering to the public is much more joined up. So you’ve got sport as the deliverable arm and you’ve got the medical health research to back up that and say “Here’s the benefits of sport, the benefits of exercise, and some real statistics about what works.”

The Run! project branches away from traditional track and field athletics towards getting people active. We don’t necessarily want them to join a club. It’s more about getting people into sport, increasing participation.

It’s really interesting because as a national governing body, England Athletics has never done that before. It’s always been a case of working on sport as sport. And now with the change in agenda towards public health, combatting obesity and promoting well-being. Our relationship with the ISEH is a perfect opportunity to engage with that agenda.

That’s the first part. The other part is about promoting awareness about the Institute. Our members comprise both affiliated athletics clubs and individuals. We are promoting the Institute to our members, both the NHS and the private facility. It’s great to have that as an offer to our elite athletes, our clubs and anyone signed up for athletics. It’s good for us to have that offer and gets publicity for the ISEH as well, so it works both ways. We have also run a variety of workshops at the ISEH with the support of their highly qualified staff to help support our developing and up-coming coaches.

The third is more of a personal element. As an athlete, as a sprinter, for the past fifteen years I’ve competed up to national level. For the last couple of years I have been plagued with various different injuries. After seeing the facilities here, I was treated by Dr Courtney Kipps with regards to a knee problem. The advice and support has been absolutely fantastic. It’s been second to none and has really helped shape my time in athletics. Also the groups that I coach, I coach various different athletic groups and a lot of the guys that I train with have used the ISEH as well. It’s great facility, totally unique.

ISEH: What do you think is unique about the ISEH?

TH: You have that knowledge and understanding of national sport governing bodies and how sport works alongside the health expertise. You’ve also got links with University College London: it’s that partnership. For England Athletics, it’s helped shape our project going forwards because it’s allowed us to engage with people we wouldn’t normally engage with and to look at aspects of inactivity and health that we wouldn’t normally consider. Participation is vital, but we want to look at quality as well as quantity. And the ISEH by its joint focus on health care, research and education: for us, it’s the perfect partnership.

It also helps us so that when we engage with other partners, be it a different borough or an area or organisation, that we don’t just sit there and go “We can get fifty more people active”. We can actually back it up with research and quantitative and qualitative data. This means that you can predict a saving on your public health budget or improve the health of those fifty people for these reasons.

ISEH: Can you tell us a bit more about the Run! project?

TH: It branches away from traditional track and field athletics or what people class as sport and what people class as running. It’s going down the route of fun and engaging activity that prevents that negative association that surrounds sport and the elite image of athletics. We have a couple of ‘products’ that we offer as part of the  programme: it’s about setting up groups within local communities, within the areas where there’s demand and working to people’s own abilities – looking at walking to jogging to running groups, sessions that are like kind of boot camp sessions where you’ve got training and this sort of stuff so it’s not just ‘turn up, 5K run, go home’. It’s about adapting that programme.

The other initiative we offer is something called AthleFit, which is our athletics fitness product, ideally aimed at inactive people or people that have taken some time out of sport and want to get back into a little bit of regular activity. We’ve taken the elements of athletics, traditionally run jump and throw, and adapted those three elements into like a circuit-based programme. We use things like the sportshall athletics equipment, foam javelins; we do some hurdle work like step-overs: that can be adapted again so if you’ve got a totally inactive group you can do really low level-low impact work, but I’ve also used it with the athletes that I coach.

The idea behind the Run! project is that it brands all that. It takes sport into the local community, instead of sitting here and saying we’ve got an athletics track, why are people not coming? We take it into a local community and say look, we can offer you this in your church hall, in your mosque, or your local community centre.

The team of activators will go into communities and say look, where do you need activity, what groups? Working with the councils and looking at for instance take an example, Tower Hamlets. You’ve got an area where a high Bangladesh population which has a high incidence of inactivity. So working with that knowledge of the council, the activators will then go in and target those specific groups.

In terms of age groups, our primary target is fourteen plus – there’s no upper age limit. But equally we’re looking at engaging with communities where you’ve got older people and hard to reach groups basically. The idea of the Run! project is working with those hard to reach communities.

ISEH: How do local community activators work?

TH: The overall crux of the Run! project is engaging inactive people, in hard to reach communities. But it’s down to the activator working with local partners to decide what to do and where. Instead of saying one size fits all, it’s a flexible approach. We say “You tell us your priorities and we’ll adapt what we can offer.”

ISEH: What’s your vision for the future?

TH: Historically the focus has been on participation, getting people active. But there’s never been that scientific or research base that says “you’ve engaged with these inactive people and that has had a positive benefit on public health or the NHS.” With the relationship we’ve got with the ISEH, and the Get Healthy Get Active project that we’re working on, we’re looking at the benefits of participation and the tangible qualitative and quantitative data behind what happens when an inactive person gets active.

So come 2017, when our whole-sport plan funding with Sport England finishes, it will give us a chance to say look, we’ve been running this new project with the ISEH for a couple of years, it has had a positive effect and this is why. And then we can look at shaping our policies nationally, working with organisations like the ISEH, saying let’s shape policy towards really addressing the health benefits of inactivity and being really specific in terms of the benefits.

At the moment we’ve got very straightforward monitoring and evaluation data around participation. With the change towards a more health-focused agenda and the Get Healthy Get Active project, we will be looking at individual interviews as it were with each participant, looking at why they’ve got into sport, assessing them during the activity and then again for a certain period after they’ve finished, to look at questions such as has it had a positive impact on your daily life, has it had an impact on your GP referral, on your GP visits.

ISEH: What are your goals for the year ahead?

TH: Work-wise, my goals are formalising the relationship with organisations like the ISEH but furthering that relationship in terms of getting some tangible data that can start to influence our policies at a national level, so we're really impacting on our head office in Birmingham and having a different approach to sports participation.

On a personal level, I want to finish off my rehabilitation, and get back into regular sport, into athletics and keeping fit.

I’d also like my coaching group and the guys I train with to be more aware of the facility here at the ISEH and say “Look, let’s make the most of this facility while it’s here”.