Changing the conversation about health

BEYOND PILLS CAMPAIGN Boxing clever: How one grassroots organisation is helping everyone from cancer patients to those struggling with prescribed drug dependency

The combined power of community and sport to improve people’s health and well-being is increasingly being hailed as an effective way of releasing pressure on the NHS – and a grassroots organisation in England’s north east is offering up a shining example of just how to do it. 

Boxing Well, founded by David Bullock at the height of the Covid pandemic in the seaside town of Blyth in Northumberland, offers non-contact sessions to improve physical and mental health, with inclusivity at its core.

Seeing Blyth residents struggling during lockdown, and with a deep understanding of the therapeutic potential of boxing, Bullock says he was inspired to start offering the sessions as a way to help his own local community.

Nearly four years on, its success on a local level – helping everyone from cancer patients to forces veterans and those withdrawing from prescription drugs – means the project has become a blueprint for how social prescribing can transform health.

A typical day’s schedule might include classes that focus on community fitness, reduced mobility, addiction recovery or boxing with autism.

Members attending a Boxing Well session in Blyth in North East England (Copyright: Facebook/Boxing Well)

Firm in the belief that community and relationships were fundamental to Boxing Well’s success, Bullock strived from the outset to engage social prescribing teams within the NHS, and once those healthcare professionals had seen the impact the sessions were having, they began referring patients they believed the organisation could help. Now, Bullock’s approach is being rolled out across the North East, and he’s hopeful its ripples of positivity will soon be felt further afield. 

In recent weeks, Boxing Well has been nominated for an award at the 2024 National Diversity Awards. A fan who had experienced the sessions first hand said the initiative deserved the accolade because ‘members come from all walks of life, each with their own story, and are accepted and valued equally.’

They added: ‘The coaching team uses boxing as a vehicle for personal empowerment, guidance extends beyond boxing techniques to inspire a journey of personal discovery and growth.’

Ex miner George Wilson, left, has lost more than ten stone – making him healthy enough for the cancer surgery he needed, thanks to the Boxing Well initiative. Right, George Chambers became depressed and anxious following a motorcycle accident – but says sport-based therapy has been a huge boost for his mental health 

One person who pushed through the doors of Boxing Well’s Empire Gym in Blyth was George Chambers.

A motorcycle accident had left him housebound and with spiralling mental health; he had battled anxiety and depression for several years before he was given a referral to try the boxing sessions.

Now attending sessions several times a week, Chambers says the sport-based therapy has left him able to envisage a life without the crutch of prescription drugs for the first time since before his accident.

And ex-miner George Wilson has found equally life-changing benefits in the ring. In chronic pain after a 2020 bladder cancer diagnosis, Wilson needed an operation to remove cancerous cells from his bladder – but had to lose weight before he could have the surgery.

Referred to Boxing Well, Wilson began a remarkable weight-loss journey, with the support of his wife and children too, that would see him lose more than ten stone and be able to undergo the surgery that’s now left him cancer-free.

Bullock, who’s currently in the midst of a funding drive, told the Chronicle Live in 2022: ‘I was able to get permission to work with people on a one-to-one basis during the pandemic and we’ve had people say that it really helped save them.

‘It’s about getting the right programme for the right person. This is something we can take anywhere to help serve the community.’

A study by Newcastle University in May 2023 into the impact of Boxing Well on the local community found that those putting on gloves reported ‘therapeutic benefit and overall improved mood because of the boxing training’.

It’s research that’s inline with an evidence review of the benefits of exercise for depression, published in the BMJ in February this year. The review found that some types of exercise proved more effective than psychotherapy and antidepressants.

NHS figures show that around 8.6 million people in England take antidepressants but, according to a University of Queensland Australia review, which looked at 218 studies of 14,170 participants with depression, they could be better off taking aerobic exercise, joining a yoga, walking or dancing group and getting out in nature.