This article is part of our special report Physical inactivity: A ticking timebomb in the EU.
SPECIAL REPORT / Lack of exercise can burden economies and health systems, with recent projections suggesting the costs for the European Union as a whole could amount to 31 billion euros per year, according to Tibor Navracsics.
Tibor Navracsics is European Commissioner in charge of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. He answered to EURACTIV’s questions in writing.
What are the consequences of being physically inactive for the individual, and for society at large?
We know that remaining physically active throughout our lives is essential in staying healthy and well. Physical inactivity is the fourth most important risk factor for mortality around the world. It is a contributing factor to around 6% of deaths globally, and is estimated to be the main cause for a number of cancers, diabetes and heart disease.
A lack of exercise is also linked to obesity, being both a cause and consequence of this condition. Regular exercise on the other hand can help prevent the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and certain forms of cancer. It can also help older people stay agile and independent for longer parts of their lives.
More generally, a society where people are not active enough can burden economies and health systems. Physically inactive people cause higher medical costs, tend to be absent from work more often and less productive.
As an example, estimates show that physical inactivity has a societal economic impact of £7bn per year in the UK alone. Recently, similar projections made for the EU showed that the lack of physical activity can cost over €31bn per year.
Do you see a link between physical inactivity and mental health?
Extensive research, as well as common anecdotal evidence show that physical activity has positive effects on our mental health. It can help reduce our reactions to stress, anxiety or depression, and even delay the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
But it’s not only about prevention. We know that exercise and regular physical activity are crucial for children’s early development and stimulate the working of the brain during childhood as well as in adulthood. Studies have also shown that physically active children attain better results at school.
So, I would say that we need sufficient and regular exercise to make sure our not only our bodies but also our minds work in the best possible ways.
Are there any warning signs? How can individuals know they are not sufficiently active?
Each person is of course different, but we know that regular physical activity benefits everyone. That’s why it is so important to encourage people to do sports and exercise regularly. The World Health Organization has published recommendations on the minimum amount of exercise for adults and children in order to help them improve their general wellbeing and avoid certain diseases.
According to these recommendations, children and teenagers should do at least one hour of moderate to intense exercise a day. This can be part of their playtime, physical education in school, family sports activities or hobbies and recreation. For adults, at least 2.5 hours a week of moderate exercise are recommended.
In terms of awareness-raising, are different channels of communication better targeted to specific segments of the population?
In today’s world, how physically active people are is usually strongly influenced by the nature of their work, their financial income and factors like age and gender. For example, we know that older people are in general less active, and that on average women do less physical exercise than men.
Such differences make it clear that we cannot promote a healthy and physically active lifestyle in the same way for everyone. We need to find ways to show that sport is fun and make it part of people’s lives in order to get them to take up activities on a regular basis.
To promote physical activity and sports to the wider European public, we are organising the first ever European Week of Sport this year. Hundreds of events will take place across the EU in September, and the idea is to get as many people as possible interested in sport and to encourage them to take up physical activities, regardless of age, fitness level or social background.
Each day of the week, we have chosen to focus on a different setting for doing sports. One day, for example, we will look at how to promote sports in schools and education establishments, while another day will focus on sports at the workplace, outdoors as well as in sport clubs and fitness centres. We hope that each of these days can give people new ideas on how to become more active and improve their general fitness – not just during the Week of Sport, but all year round.
How can workplace policies help people exercise? Should physical activity be incentivised in the workplace?
At the Commission, we believe that for a healthy organisation we need healthy people. We know that it’s important to get our staff to be more active, and we are encouraging them to get involved in a range of activities outside working hours.
My colleague, Vice-President Kristalina Georgieva, recently launched the fit@work campaign, which brings together existing and new initiatives to promote exercise, encouraging a healthier working environment and supporting staff in developing a better work-life balance. Sport is an essential part of this campaign, but we are also looking more broadly at what contributes to employees’ well-being.
As part of these activities, the Commission is, organising the Schuman Trophy football tournament, and the 20 KM of Brussels. These are events that take place under the patronage of the Commission, but also attract many people who work in the Commission as participants. This benefits not only the general well-being at the workplace, but also strengthens the team spirit of the organisation.
The European Union does not have much competence in the area of public health. Yet physical inactivity has long been recognised as a health determinant by the Commission. How does that translate in practice when it comes to existing programmes or actual legislation? What are the forthcoming initiatives in this area?
The promotion of physical activity and education remains a national competence. In recent years however, the Commission has become a part of the debate of how to encourage young people in particular to become more active. In 2013, the Council adopted a Recommendation, in which it asked member states and the Commission to develop new actions to promote physical activity in different sectors.
At the Commission, we are now working closely with the member states and other stakeholders, including the World Health Organization, on how we can promote healthier and physically active lifestyles through different policy areas like sport, health, education, environment and transport.
Since 2014, when the Commission gained competence in the field of sport for the first time, we have also made encouraging physical activity a priority policy area. We are now working with experts from member states to draw up recommendations encouraging physical education in schools. These can play a vital role in getting young people take up healthier habits and reach the recommended levels of exercise. We are also supporting projects to promote physical activity around Europe through the sports part of the Erasmus+ programme.
Another important project I already mentioned is the European Week of Sport. We have joined forces with 31 countries and close to 30 European partner organisations to make this happen. Just a few days ago, we appointed the first four Ambassadors to promote the event. I am very glad that we will work with football icons Steven Gerrard and Clarence Seedorf, Olympic medalist skeet shooter Danka Barteková and four times Paralympic gold medalist Marie Bochet, who will help us to get the word out that sport can bring people together in a fun way.