The Politics of Fitness and Moving Towards Healthier Nations

By Melania Armento

Published 24 December 2020

We already understand the importance of physical activity on our overall wellbeing; however, as sedentary lifestyles are on the rise, what can governments do to encourage and support healthier nations?

With fitness facilities closing their doors and more people than ever working from home, we are undoubtedly facing a huge challenge concerning keeping people active.

More recently, there has been an increased focus on how governments can help support, promote, and encourage sport and exercise. This month, the World Health Organization (WHO) released official guidelines for physical activity.

The guidelines, developed from evidence-based studies on physical activity and sedentary behavior, aim to help policyholders create effective change across nations.

For the First Time in a Decade, WHO Updated Its Physical Activity Guidelines

The biggest takeaway from WHO’s guidelines is that all movement counts. The report noted that globally about 25% of adults do not meet the recommended levels of physical activity.

According to the public health recommendations, included in the published WHO guidelines, children, adolescents and adults should all be engaging in ‘the amount of physical activity required to offer significant health benefits and mitigate health risks.’

These benefits range from improved sleep and mental wellbeing to a reduction in site-specific developing cancer, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

A sedentary lifestyle, on the other hand, has been linked to weight gain, osteoporosis, increased risk of cancer, and depleted mental health, amongst many other health issues.

Recommended Exercise per Week

The report states that the recommended amount of activity in children has been estimated at 60 minutes of aerobic activity each day, with two additional resistance-based activities where possible.

For adults, 150-300 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week, and 3 resistance-based activities, could significantly improve physical and mental wellbeing.

The publication follows from a global action plan on physical activity from 2018-2030, agreed by health leaders in 2018 to reduce inactivity by 15% by 2030.

According to WHO, statistics indicate that one in four adults and four in five adolescents do not get adequate physical activity. The result of this is costs of approximately $54 billion in ‘direct healthcare’ and an additional cost of $14bn in ‘lost productivity.

Based on these figures, driving down inactivity across nations could prevent approximately 5 million deaths and save US$68 billion each year.

A Key Priority in the European Union’s Five-Year Strategy

Following publication, the EU has since begun drafting a new initiative to promote exercise as a preventative healthcare measure, in a document called The EU Work Plan for Sport 2021-2024.

Its central aim is for ‘the promotion of participation in health-enhancing physical activity.’ Other objectives include increased participation and awareness, promoting activity and social cohesion, and improving lifestyle.

There has also been a call for increased investment for purposes of sustainable growth, both socially and economically, and ‘future resilience’, following the pandemic.

It is thought funds that had previously been targeted elsewhere, may now be redirected into the plan. The published document also states that the rollout will use a combination of cluster groups, council meetings, conferences, and studies.

Maximizing the Opportunities for Our Physical Health

In the UK, The House of Lords’ National Plan for Sport and Recreation Committee has ‘invited sporting organizations and members of the public in the UK, to provide their views on how to tackle the barriers which prevent people from taking part in sport and physical activity, as part of an inquiry into the government’s performance in relation to participation.’

The committee held a session on 9th December 2020, which included ukactive CEO Huw Edwards, Sports Think Tank Director Andy Reed OBE, and Lisa Wainwright, CEO of the Sports and Recreation Alliance.

The main focus was to discuss the UK Government’s 2015 strategy on sport, called Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation. So, how does the government promote healthy lifestyles? The strategy lists five main areas of concern– physical health, mental health, individual development, social and community development, and economic development.

The aim of the session was to discuss how successful the strategy had been and to determine whether or not these topics were still the most relevant focus in 2020.

Reducing Inactivity and Sedentary Time

Lord Willis, of the House of Lords, spoke during the session on the notable change in how people now stay active. He also addressed the importance of correctly identifying key focus areas, to get people moving again.

Huw Edwards’ address, during the same session, mentioned the need for “a brand new vision and strategy, not just from Sport England and UK Sport, but from the government as well, to think about how we can reset some of those challenges that we still face.”

Andy Reed added:

“While shifting everything takes time, it’s clear that organizations have now recognized that their role has to change.”

It seems that the UK government is steadily becoming more aware of the importance of promoting physical activity for our health; it also seems there is more appreciation of the importance of supporting each of our nations in both delivering and receiving the opportunity for exercise.

A key focus for governments now, therefore, is not only to improve and act upon previous strategies to increase participation and access but also to recognize the importance of exercise moving forward and begin creating space for new opportunities.

Melania Armento

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