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Innovating Leisure Centres: Transforming Communities Through Fitness
Wave members in the gym

April 2024 – George Lee

Theme: Exercise

Innovating Leisure Centres:
Transforming Communities Through Fitness

In an era where the importance of good health and wellness is gathering momentum, there is an opportunity for public leisure centers to evolve on from their traditional roles as a destination where people come to take part in sport and other forms of exercise and become community hubs of health innovation. Leading this charge is Wave Active, an initiative in East Sussex in the UK spearheaded by CEO Duncan Kerr, a lifelong advocate for sport, physical activity and well-being. Through Wave Active, Duncan aims to reshape traditional public leisure by integrating healthcare, inclusivity, and community engagement. 

Wave Active Age members

Members of Wave's Active Age group

Central to Wave Active’s purpose and vision is addressing health disparities and breaking down barriers to physical activity participation. Duncan highlights a shocking industry figure — only 14% of people would typically join a gym in their local area, leaving the majority of the population out of that form of physical activity. Wave Active’s ambition is clear: to do more to reach and support the remaining 86%, making physical activity accessible to all. 

Wave Active already surpasses the 14% penetration rate by a significant margin. When asked about Wave Active’s success, Duncan attributes it to the diverse facilities and range of activities offered across the 15 centres he manages and the staff who create a positive, welcoming and supporting atmosphere. “We aim to tackle health inequalities head-on and remove barriers to participation,” he explains. “The first welcome to our facilities is crucial, as taking that initial step for many can be daunting.” 

As I delve deeper into conversation with Duncan Kerr, his passion for this cause becomes evident, reinforcing Wave Active’s role as a catalyst for community health and fitness transformation. “To me, it’s more about the vulnerability of the person when they are ill or when they have a health condition,” Duncan begins, reflecting on his personal experiences. “Unless you have been in that situation, it can be difficult to know just how vulnerable and isolated you can feel.” Duncan speaks from a place of empathy and understanding, drawing from his own battle with illness. He shares how he was ill for a period to the point where he became a very different person. “You have to rebuild yourself. You gain confidence by doing often very simple things,” he shares. For Duncan, it’s about helping people find a more normal life so they can feel more confident about regaining good health, however long that may take. 

"Physical exercise supports the vast majority of health conditions."

Central to Duncan’s vision is the normalisation of movement in daily life. He advocates for the integration of movement into work routines, proposing standing desks as the norm and advocating for regular movement breaks throughout the day. Duncan views the lack of movement opportunity in daily life as a form of health inequality, which can bring profound long-term implications for individuals’ well-being. 

 He champions simple lifestyle changes that prioritise movement, such as walking instead of driving and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Duncan emphasises the need for these changes to become subconscious habits, shaping individuals’ daily routines towards a more active lifestyle. 

Bringing back to Wave, it is clear that Duncan’s and Wave Active’s approach goes beyond mere physical spaces—it’s about forging genuine connections with the communities it serves. “Yes, we have focused on our finances and we have become a more resilient organsiation because of it” Duncan explains. “But the key is the heart stuff. We needed people to love what we do, and that helped us develop our strategy, which is very much about how we were going to weave ourselves into the community.” 


Some of Wave's younger members

Some of Wave's younger members.

Wave Active’s work is deeply rooted in promoting health and well-being within the community. “The company’s evolution from Wave Leisure to Wave Active and Wave Active Health reflects its expanded focus on community health,” Duncan explains. “Wave Active is about providing high-quality facilities for general access, and Wave Active Health is about designing and implementing behavioral change courses to help and support people with health conditions, illness and or injury.” 

When asked about the specific health conditions Wave Active concentrates on, Duncan emphasises the holistic benefits of physical exercise. “Physical exercise supports the vast majority of health conditions,” he asserts. “For example, people coming onto the pre-hypertension courses may focus on hypertension initially, but through participation, they experience benefits across various aspects of health.”  

I ask him about the new hypertension pilot program Wave Active Health has launched in partnership with the local PCN (Primary Care Network). “The idea for the pilot course with GPs came from a desire to bridge the gap between fitness facilities and primary healthcare,” Duncan explains thoughtfully. It is a 12-week behavioural change course, developed by the Wave Active Health Team for people with pre-hypertension as selected by the GPs. As part of the pilot, participants also get three months free access to Wave Active facilities and activities, for example, swimming, yoga, pilates, the gym and other group exercise classes. Duncan explains, the significant difference with the hypertension project is the partnership between the Wave Active Health Team and the PCN and how we’re working together to onboard and support the participants. 

BBC coverage of Wave's hypertension pilot

Still from BBC coverage of Wave Active's new hypertension course

The journey from idea to implementation wasn’t without its challenges. “our relationship with the local GPs and PCN are fundamentally key and that takes time.  The focus for me is how we can be much better connected, a blended team working together for the health of our community. It’s also about the opportunities of sharing workspace, our buildings informally part of their estate and the willingness to try working in different ways. It wasn’t until we had established those good relationships that the idea started to gain traction,” Duncan shares. “One of the most rewarding aspects of Wave Active’s initiatives is the impact it has on individuals’ lives. “The other day Peter, one of the participants on the hypertension course, as he was leaving, looked over to me and offered a very sincere “thank you”, Duncan shares with a smile. “You could see genuine appreciation.” 

Looking ahead, Duncan is excited about the potential for system change and continued innovation. “What’s really exciting is showing that it’s not just about blood pressure,” he enthuses. “It’s about overall health improvement and behavioral change, physical activity has that effect, you may well sign up to lower your blood pressure but, at the same time you could also reduce fat levels, increase mobility, gain muscle, increase range of movement, improve your mood and mental health. Physical activity genuinely is a wonder drug, we just need more people to experience and appreciate that….” 

For Duncan and the team at Wave Active, the power of physical activity extends beyond mere exercise—it’s about holistic health and well-being. “Believing in the power of physical activity for physical, mental, and emotional health made sense to us,” he emphasises. “And people go to the doctor, so if you have a GP working with you, then that GP will think more about the power of physical activity.” 


"We now have a qualified nurse working with us as part of our team and we’re now looking at the potential to recruit a GP to be a direct part of our team."

I ask him why, when this seems so simple and so right, more GPs aren’t partnering with the leisure sector to do this. “You are asking very, very busy people to stop and reimagine something and to implement something quite different,” he reflects. “But we are determined to prove the impact of system change and the positive benefits of a much closer working partnership with our local GPs and PCNs”. 

Wave Active’s next innovations include integrating healthcare professionals directly into their team, a significant move which sets them apart in the world of the public leisure trust sector. “We now have a qualified nurse working with us as part of our team and we’re now looking at the potential to recruit a GP to be a direct part of our team,” Duncan reveals. 

Wave members in their one of many health improvement classes

Wave members in their one of many health improvement classes

The transition from leisure-centric to active-focused represents a fundamental shift in perspective for Wave Active—a change driven by a profound commitment to holistic well-being and community engagement. For Duncan, the shift towards active living isn’t merely about fitness—it’s about enabling individuals to lead fulfilling lives. “At some point, everyone will need some form of intervention or help or support,” he reflects. “To me, it’s about giving everyone the best chance of the longest period of good health. Everyone wants to be able to live an independent life. To lose your independence is a hell of a thing.” 

However, Duncan acknowledges the challenges inherent in realising this vision, particularly in securing funding to support Wave Active’s interventions. “It would be amazing if we could get funding to support our health interventions, we need healthier communities and ultimately that’s about supporting people with the knowledge and tools to enable them to be more responsible for their own health. 

Wave Active motivational messages

Despite the obstacles, Duncan remains undeterred in his pursuit of integrated community health solutions. “Community Health Hubs, bringing health professionals, including those working within the leisure sector, together under the one roof is another project currently being worked on” he declares. “We are starting to do this in Newhaven, where we will bring primary health services and physical activity spaces together under one roof. It would become an integrated offering—come here to be physically active, and there are people around who can support you with your health.” 

In Duncan Kerr’s vision, Wave Active isn’t just a physical activity centre—it’s a catalyst for transformative change, reshaping communities and empowering individuals to lead healthier, more fulfilling lives. With his unwavering dedication and innovative spirit, Duncan’s leadership propels Wave Active forward on its mission to revolutionise the way we approach health and wellness. As Wave Active continues to pioneer new initiatives and break down barriers to fitness, the journey towards active living unfolds, promising a brighter, healthier future for all. 

More Information

More About Wave Active

Duncan Kerr

Duncan Kerr, CEO, Wave Active

You can find out more about Duncan Kerr on his LinkedIn

You can find out more about Wave Active here.

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