Meet the innovator(s) – Brenda McHugh & Harry Stevens

In the third of our Meet the Innovator blog series, we meet Brenda McHugh, from the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families, and Harry Stevens from Rugged Interactive, who are two of our project partners in our Future Challenges programme. Brenda is a Consultant Psychotherapist, and has recently been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Years’ Honours list for her services to education. Harry is the Commercial Director and Joint-MD at Rugged Interactive. Here, they talk about their passion for helping young people build mental health resilience and their involvement in our Future Challenges programme.

Name of innovation: SmartGym CardioWall Resilience Programme, Gloucestershire

Tell us about your innovation – what and why?

One in five pupils in the UK leaves school without basic skills in literacy and numeracy. The same children often exhibit behaviour or distress beyond what schools feel able to cope with. In our view, uptake of any treatment overtly publicised as having to do with ‘mental health’ is often very limited by children (whether alone or with their families), because of the stigma associated with the term. Because of this, we were both very excited to launch this initiative that is purposely fun and non-stigmatizing.

SmartGym Gloucestershire is a joint venture by Rugged Interactive and the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families, supported by West of England AHSN and Gloucestershire Health and Care NHS Foundation Trust. The project aims to help build young people’s mental resilience using a combination of enjoyable physical activity and cognitive exercises.

A central part of the SmartGym project is Rugged Interactive’s CardioWall technology, a speed and reaction trainer that uses gamification to motivate the user and increase engagement. This powerful combination of physical activity and mental stimulation has shown to have a number of beneficial effects on mood and cognition.

Alongside physical activities on the CardioWall, the innovation also includes tailored mental health support which helps embed and reinforce users’ personal development. Exercises focus on developing social skills, behavioural management, coping with underachievement and disengagement from school. This has been developed over several years by the Anna Freud Centre and has already been tested in a number of youth and education settings.

The SmartGym Gloucestershire programme is a 10-session project that resembles circuit training. Young people follow a set of weekly performance drills and track their progress over time. The drills are designed to be fun and motivational, and help young people build relationships and learn more about becoming resilient.

What was the ‘lightbulb’ moment?

Anna Freud and Rugged Interactive have been working together for several years, using Rugged’s CardioWalls in a number of schools around the UK. Similar to the SmartGym programme, the CardioWall has been used alongside mental health support to encourage children and young people to become more resilient in school and life outside of school.

When we were introduced to the West of England AHSN Future Challenges initiative, it became very clear very quickly that our partnership could be a great foundation for launching a new programme. Working with the AHSN over the last two years has been an amazing experience. The team has given us fantastic support, and their expert insight into how to work with the NHS, and how to put together a suitable proposition and explain our initiative, has been invaluable.

What has been your innovator journey highlight to date?

One of the best moments of the project was the first SmartGym session we ran at Newent School. The 20 students selected were all in their SmartGym branded T-shirts, and excited to start using the CardioWall and learn more about the project. There was a lot of laughter, fun and enjoyment that day and it was rewarding to hear so many positive comments from the first session.

What has been your toughest obstacle to date?

Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic heavily disrupted the delivery of the SmartGym project. Phase 1 was cut short, and phase 2 of the project had to be completely adapted to adhere to new social distancing and coronavirus restriction rules. We are extremely proud that despite the difficulties, together with Newent School, we have managed to complete the programme, and we now look forward to the results.

The project would have run very differently if it was not for coronavirus, but what it has shown us is that the programme can still deliver clear benefits for the students despite major disruptions (lack of attendance, limited external support, smaller groups and no school pupil mentors).

Hopes for the future?

We are excited to see the final results from the SmartGym Gloucestershire project, and we are eagerly looking forward to continuing to support Newent School, further developing and reinforcing the learnings and positive behaviours learnt through the SmartGym programme.

Overall, it is clear to us that SmartGym can be a very powerful tool for helping young people build invaluable mental health resilience, and our goal remains to roll it out into every secondary school in the country.

A typical day for you would include…

Brenda – Supporting young people, their parents and their teachers in our Alternative Provision Family School for two days each week.  Developing new social, emotional, and academic pathways to help children who have fallen into the vulnerability gap to thrive.

I spend the rest of each week delivering training across the country, using the latest research, translating findings into practical and cost-effective support for reducing educational and social exclusion. Talking to researchers and policy makers whenever we can.

Harry – 60% of the time spent talking to current customers, potential customers in new market sectors, and my team of sales and marketing experts. 10% responding to email (customers, suppliers, colleagues).  The other 30% is spread across financial planning, strategic planning and – wherever possible – researching latest development in our own market and new target sectors.

Best part of your job now?

Brenda – Hearing typically hard to engage young people describe themselves as champions rather than failures as they complete the SmartGym programme and become coaches for other young people. They give other young people hope and change their own profile. Very exciting and moving.

Harry – Finding a new distribution partner whose on our wavelength and wants to take our products into a new sector.

What three bits of advice would you give budding innovators?

Brenda –1.  Know the political landscape and dare to think differently. 2. Engage a buddy who is emotionally distanced from your innovation and will act as a critical friend. 3. Persistence, knowing what difference you want to make will help when you get set-backs – ours was develop a non-stigmatising intervention to reach young people who lacked resilience, reduce costs of continual medication and reduce exclusion.

Harry – 1. Be extremely clear on your target market or sector. 2. Understand their challenges and how you can help.  3. Try to genuinely help them, not just ‘sell to them’.  If you help them, they will value you.


In the fourth of our Meet the Innovator blog series, we meet Andrew Jackson, CEO of ProReal. In his blog he talks about his drive to help young people learn better resilience strategies, and his involvement in our Future Challenges programme. Read it here.

If you are a healthcare innovator looking for business development support and tools, do get in touch with us at the West of England AHSN. We can help. You can visit our Innovation Exchange for expert advice, information about funding opportunities and to make contact with our team to access support.

Posted on January 29, 2021 by Harry Stevens (Rugged Interactive) and Brenda McHugh (Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families)

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