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Physical inactivity burdens our societies


Taking inspiration from the Designed to Move international campaign, the PASS (Physical Activity Serving Society) project – supported by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union - aims at shedding new light on the state of physical activity in Europe. With the support of 6 major European players (EUPEA, FESI, ISCA, ICSSPE, Spolint Institute and TAFISA), the Sport and Citizenship think tank unveiled the intermediary results of its scientific review. With a call for more political recognition and a utilization of physical activity at the service of education, health, social integration, urban planning and environmental protection.

Sport vs. social cohesion

Sport is traditionally associated with two types of benefits. One is the relationship between physical activity and physical health, which is now established beyond doubt. Another feature of sport is the ability to give sense to common projects, to foster participation in a community and to strengthen links between individuals.

The strength of a society or community can be looked at through the notion of social capital, which was theorized by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. This idea is defined as a number of interactions and connections between people. The more connections there are, the more well off individuals will be physically, socially, personally and economically.

It is generally accepted that sport is a strong vector for this social capital as it builds this capacity to be socially active and interact with others. The bonding and bridging brought by sport and physical activity helps. So beyond the generic discourse about the everlasting inherent “values of sport”, one can look at it in a more pragmatic way.

The popularity of football for example has developed into a so-called religion, as it is probably one of the easiest games to play. It becomes a common language, reference point for people with different backgrounds, cultures and expectations.

Europe is the home for 700.000 sport associations and 35 million volunteers. This is regularly overshadowed by the negativity displayed in the media (FIFA corruption scandals, moral affairs, etc…).

An alarming situation on the ground

Gender disparity

The relationship between physical activity and physical health is now established beyond doubt, and the awareness of the health costs of sedentary behaviours is so advanced that inactivity is now recognized as a major public health concern. For example, physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for diseases. It is becoming clear that there is a trend for sedentary lifestyles across most of developed countries, too.

The challenges Europe is facing, like all continents, are both general and distinctive. The health risks associated with inactivity and sedentary lifestyles apply to all people, irrespective of their location and culture, but the social and environmental characteristics of living and working in Europe need to be understood as peculiar to that region.

210 million of inactive Europeans

Physical activity is important for people of all ages. So, it is concerning that available evidence suggests that activity levels, in Europe, are often low and even declining. The limited surveillance information on children suggests a similar pattern, and this is even more alarming as childhood represents a foundation for later health and activity behaviours. Research shows that around 210 million European citizens are inactive. This situation imposes economic costs of more than 80 billion euros per year to the EU-28 through four major non-communicable diseases (coronary heart disease, type II diabetes, colorectal and breast cancer) and through the indirect costs of inactivity-related mood and anxiety disorders.

Policy makers

Paradoxically, this situation has been quite documented throughout Europe. Unfortunately, not to the extent of acknowledging this public health risk as probably one of the most urgent challenges of the 21st century. It is claimed indeed that 66% of policymakers in Europe are unaware of the obesity levels in their country. Numbers go up to 84% for overweight. This gap in knowledge is detrimental for our economies, societies and well and has to be taken into account seriously.

The Human Capital Model

The Human Capital Model

Discussions on the benefits of physical activity have focused almost exclusively on physical health and physical disease. However, it has been argued that these health benefits are merely aspects, or even positive side effects, of a more wide-reaching, holistic contribution that physical activity makes to human development. If this is the case, it would be expected that the positive outcomes of engagement in physical activities would extend beyond improvements to health. As it turns out, this is the case.

The Human Capital Model (HCM) (Bailey, et al., 2012; 2013; in press) is framework for thinking about the outcomes and processes of physical activity, and is part of a wider research, development and advocacy initiative called Designed to Move. Part of its motivation is that despite the mounting evidence of the benefits of physical activities, there continues to be a general under-appreciation of the importance of sports and physical activity - both to individuals and the wider society. When the value of physical activity is discussed, it tends to focus on a narrow range of issues, such as obesity and coronary heart disease.

Underlying the HCM is an assertion that the stock of competencies, knowledge and personal attributes are embodied in the ability to take part in sporting and other physical activities, and that these activities produce values that are realized through increased well-being, educational achievement and, ultimately, economic value.

Investing in cities to reverse the physical inactivity epidemic

Maxime Leblanc, Responsable des affaires européennes/EU Affairs Manager, Sport et Citoyenneté

A number of policy documents have been produced at international, European and national levels, most notably thanks to the impetus of WHO and the European Union. A currently under-utilised resource there, has been the more local governmental agencies. They represent a level of administration that is closer to citizens and hold the competencies to animate their territories. Cities offer numerous opportunities to be physically active, and some have turned their built environment into a space that encourages health and activity for all. Active cities are

walkable and cyclable. They are safe and well lit, with good public transport and appropriate management of obstacles and barriers. They represent an opportunity to create the conditions for European citizens to be physically active.

Maxime Leblanc

Responsable des affaires européennes/EU Affairs Manager

Sport et Citoyenneté

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