MEP McGuinness: There’s no clear EU policy response to inactivity

Mairead McGuinness

Mairead McGuinness [EPP Group/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Physical inactivity: A ticking timebomb in the EU.

SPECIAL REPORT / There is no clear EU policy response to inactivity, as it cuts across a number of policy areas from education to health to workplace to environment, says Mairead McGuinness.

Mairead McGuinness is an Irish member of the European People’s Party (EPP) and co-chair of the MEP Heart Group. She answered questions by EURACTIV’s Henriette Jacobsen.

How important do you think physical activity is in order to live a healthy lifestyle?

Physical activity is very important for a healthy lifestyle. Participation in regular physical activity contributes to the prevention of several chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and depression. The combined effect of physical activity, good nutrition and positive mental health will decrease the risk of non-communicable diseases leading to less time spent in our health care system. Increasing physical activity levels will combat the threat of a shorter, lower quality of life that is forecast for our children’s generation.

What are the consequences of being physically inactive for the individual? What are the consequences for society as a whole?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), less than half of adults in most countries are sufficiently active to reap the health and well-being benefits. This low level of physical activity accounts for around 5.3 million deaths per annum, making it the fourth leading cause of mortality in the world. There is compelling evidence in favour of physically active lifestyles, yet the message is not getting through.

In Ireland, my home country our Health Minister has said that the current health status of people living in Ireland, lifestyle trends and inequalities in health outcomes are leading us toward a future that is dangerously unhealthy and very likely unaffordable. The WHO recognises physical inactivity as one of the leading global risk factors for morbidity and premature mortality. Physical inactivity contributes substantially to direct healthcare costs and has a significant impact on productivity and healthy life-years.

How is it possible for an individual to know that he/she is active enough?

In the ‘Global Strategy for Physical Activity and Health’ the WHO recommends that all countries have national physical activity guidelines that reflect the goals and objectives outlined in the strategy. My home country, Ireland has adopted the WHO strategy with the publication of the National Physical Activity Guidelines in 2009. The publication outlines the physical activity recommendations based on the WHO guidelines for children, adults and older adults. These guidelines can be used as a reference tool for individuals to determine if they are active enough for their age group. The physical activity guidelines for adults aged 18-64 years are at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity activity 5 days a week, or 150 minutes accumulated over the course of the week.

Technology can play an important role helping individuals monitor their physical activity levels. Devices such as pedometers measure step counts and are a useful aid to gauge activity levels. Although there are no definite scientific step count recommendations, experts say that 10,000 steps per day is a good target, while any amount of activity beyond what you are currently doing will likely benefit your health. Step counters have recently been incorporated in mobile phones and phone apps, making it easier than ever to measure your physical activity i.e. steps per day.

Do you think that people are aware of the importance of exercising and take it seriously?

In general I think we all know that physical activity is important, but we are probably not fully aware of how critical regular physical activity is to our overall health and well-being, particularly to the prevention of chronic diseases, including its importance for positive mental health.

Which groups in society should policymakers be focusing on when it comes to encouraging physical activity?

While its importance to get the message out to all groups in society, clearly starting early with children has the most benefits as intervention at this stage sets a pattern of behaviour for the future. Equally targeting teenagers and young adults is an irritant, especially young women, where we see a high level of dropouts from sport in the teenage years.

For young adults between 18-25years, when lasting health behaviour patterns are established, including physical activity, it is important to impress the message of the benefits of physical activity. Research shows that people are more likely to remain active throughout adulthood if they have physically active lifestyles in childhood and young adulthood.

Do you see a link between physical inactivity and mental health?

Mental illness is a serious public health issue. It is expected to account for 15% of the global burden of disease by 2020. In today’s busy world, stress and anxiety levels can be high. Mental illness is socially debilitating and associated with suicide ideation and attempts, drug and alcohol abuse and homelessness. Research clearly indicates a positive association between exercise and psychological health.

Physical activity promotes emotional well-being, including improvements in depressed mood, anxiety and stress, and self-esteem. Exercise can be useful in treating and avoiding depressive illnesses, and can be used as a means of reducing stress and anxiety on a daily basis.

Do you think that EU policymakers take the (economic) burden of citizens being inactive seriously?

Again, I think there is awareness of the issue and concern about it, but perhaps there is no clear policy response to inactivity, as it cuts across a number of policy areas, from education to health to workplace to environment.

The European Union does not have many competences or power, in the area of public health. What could be ‘smaller pieces of legislation’ that could help European citizens become more active?

Sometime it is soft power that can be most effective, like sharing experiences among and between member states on physical activity levels, including how to incorporate physical activity in our daily lives. Health is a member state competence, but in some aspects of health related harm, including smoking, we see cooperation and learning from each other between member states. A similar possibility exists with physical activity levels by promoting awareness of the links between physical and mental health, and our levels of physical activity.

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