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A year of AWRC - health and wellbeing IS the agenda, not ON the agenda

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28 January 2021  |  Long-Read

A year of AWRC - health and wellbeing IS the agenda, not ON the agenda

All New Year resolutions are written with the best of intentions. A sense of renewal which drives us to improve those things which have too often taken a back seat – and normally that means our health and wellbeing.

At the start of 2020, Sheffield Hallam turbo-charged this resolution and commitment to health and wellbeing into something long-term, sustainable, and of benefit to all: the official opening of the world-leading Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC).

The AWRC is the flagship research centre at the heart of the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park. Its vision is to improve the health and wellbeing of the population through innovations that help people move.

The front entrance of the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre
The Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre

Funded with a £15million investment from Department of Health and Social Care and the European Regional Development Fund, the AWRC sits proudly on hallowed sporting turf. The Don Valley Stadium was once a hotbed for Olympic hopefuls and now legends (and surrounding facilities continue that tradition). The legacy now lives on through the AWRC.

The research hub for the National Centre for Sports and Exercise Medicine (NCSEM), a 2012 Olympic Legacy project which aims to transform Sheffield into the most active city in the UK, is based at the AWRC. The research team works with clinicians, patients and health and care commissioners to better design services and identify innovations that can prevent and treat chronic disease.

More widely, the AWRC is using its cutting-edge facilities, laboratories and research partnerships to translate elite sport into population health at its inspiring home on the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park in Darnall, an area of Sheffield which faces multiple economic and social challenges. Olympic legacy at its inclusive best.

2020: Official opening – to national closing

In January 2020, the AWRC was officially opened by Paralympic legend and Sheffield City Region’s Active Travel Commissioner, Dame Sarah Storey. The packed launch event was an opportunity to showcase many of the AWRC’s pioneering projects to partners, community leaders and key stakeholders from across the country, and those right on its doorstep. 

Once the red carpet had been rolled up, it was time to get down to business. During its first and highly productive year, the AWRC has already worked on a range of innovative projects, research and collaborations.

From collaborating with Sheffield Children’s Hospital to develop robotics to support children with specialist health needs, to working with global running phenomenon, parkrun, to conduct research in to its impact on health and wellbeing, the AWRC was off to a flying start.

These projects, delivered by the AWRC co-located researchers, have been built on strong relationships with external partners. Key AWRC collaborators include the likes of Cannon Medical Systems, GO fit, parkrun, and Westfield Health.

This rapid start was matched by the launch of the AWRC Wellbeing Accelerator. The £900,000 programme works with start-ups and SMEs to support their research and to develop innovative health and wellbeing products and help bring them to market more quickly.

The AWRC Wellbeing Accelerator is one of 20 University Enterprise Zones, launched with a £20million investment delivered by Research England, part of UK Research and Innovation.

During its first year the AWRC Wellbeing Accelerator programme has welcomed 28 start-ups, including three international businesses, and engaged 15 project partners.

With the doors officially open, life at the AWRC had begun. Health, wellbeing and physical activity now had the stage to stand (or move) front and centre in decision-making related to not just ‘healthcare’, but economics, infrastructure and social policy.  

Little did we know that the AWRC’s vision would come into even sharper focus in just a matter of weeks. As the country began to close down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, our health and wellbeing became everything. And to everyone.

AWRC and Covid-19

As the immediate impact of Covid-19 became clear, the AWRC rapidly turned its focus towards the national effort. The team quickly began to use its resources and expertise to help with the fight against the virus and its impact on the health and wellbeing of communities across the country.

Within days of the announcement of the first lockdown, the Active at Home booklet was produced by the NCSEM and went on to support thousands of older and vulnerable people in Sheffield to stay physically active.

Active lockdown project

NCSEM colleagues and AWRC researchers worked alongside Age UK, the Centre for Ageing Better, Sport England and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy to design the booklet, containing exercises and techniques for older or less mobile people to do around the home. More than 500,000 copies have now been distributed nationwide and that number is set to rise.

Pivoting to the long-term implications of the pandemic, the AWRC developed and launched a hub for research and innovation into Covid-19 recovery and rehabilitation - RICOVR -  including working with people who have enduring symptoms post-virus, known as long-Covid.

The RICOVR unit has engaged over 10,000 people since the start of the pandemic. Studies include a video series, educational booklet and symptom app to help people manage symptoms of fatigue; an exploration of the lived-experience of long-Covid; helping Hospital Trusts to resource plan for Covid; and a collaborative international study with the University of Derby and institutions in the United States and India, to understand the determinants of recovery from long Covid. 

In collaboration with Go Fit and ukactive, AWRC researchers also explored Covid cases in fitness and leisure facilities and the importance of physical activity in Covid recovery, and early in the pandemic worked with Sport England on health hygiene messaging within sports facilities.

Researchers from the AWRC and ukactive have also embarked on a three-year project to focus on how physical activity can support Covid-19 rehabilitation to inform Government decisions.

And after seeing the immense community response to the pandemic, researchers at the AWRC have highlighted the impact on community organisations, small charities and the voluntary sector. One such project explored how neighbourhood organisations supported older people during the pandemic. These projects will look on to inform national policy related to the third sector in the future.

These projects only just scratch the surface of how the AWRC is working to support people and organisations across the country during the pandemic and it will continue to be a critical asset as the UK deals with the long-term impact of Covid-19, as well as the more immediate challenges.

Moving forwards

Despite the uncertainties and unexpected challenges of 2020, the AWRC has had a truly meaningful impact on health and wellbeing outcomes in its first 12 months and has big plans for 2021.

Looking ahead, projects already include an exciting pipeline of research in cancer prehabilitation (watch this space); a Leading Through Health and Wellbeing training programme for businesses; expanding the portfolio of Wellbeing Accelerator start-ups; and continuing to support the Covid-19 recovery effort locally and nationally.

These projects – and many more – place the AWRC at the heart of the agenda to improve the health and wellbeing of the nation through research in to physical activity, whilst maintaining its absolute commitment to place and impact within its local community in Darnall, Sheffield.

City campus drone shot

This commitment to place has led to a significant contribution to the conversation around regional policy areas such as the Levelling Up agenda and the clear need to tackle deep-rooted health inequalities, which have become even more stark due to the Covid-19 pandemic (as discussed in The Yorkshire Post by the Director of the AWRC, Professor Rob Copeland).

Whilst no-one could have predicted the events of 2020, the prescience of the AWRC’s creation and its vision could not have been more well-timed. It is clear that health, wellbeing and physical activity can no longer be an annual broken promise, but a fundamental reshaping of how we live our lives. Forget health and wellbeing as a New Year’s resolution: the AWRC is the start of a revolution.

In this story

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