Boosting sports participation in the EU

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Sport brings health benefits and plays a social and educational role. However, statistics show that an average EU citizen spends more than six hours per day seated and that close to 50% take no exercise whatsoever.

Background

According to statistics, the number of children not doing sports is constantly rising across the EU. Computers and video games are considered as the principle reason why young people in particular drop sports completely. 

Together with the growing debate on childhood obesity, and the health risks later in life that are linked to the condition, the debate on how to get people move and boost sports participation is gaining momentum.

Sport and physical activity are associated with improvement of public health of the European citizen. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has indeed provided evidence of the link between people's physical activity and their health. 

However, trends show that people, in particular young, are not doing enough physical exercise and that a growing number of young people is affected by obesity. A recent Eurobarometer survey reveals that only 15% are active in sports and that the average EU citizen spends more than six hours per day seated. 

2004 was the European Year of Education through Sport (EYES). Its aim was to promote links between education and sport via co-ordinated projects between member states to get EU citizens moving. Following EYES 2004, EU sports ministers decided to support the development of a 'sports-minded schools' label at EU level.

Issues

One of the aims of the EU  White Paper on Sport , published in July 2007, is to empower citizens to do more sports and physical activity. 

The document proposes a number of actions to be implemented and supported by the Commission in three areas - its societal role, economics and organisation. The societal role of sport includes topics such as enhancing public health through physical activity, enhancing the role of sport in education, volunteer activities, social inclusion, fighting racism and the use of sport as a tool for development. Proposals for specific actions under the topic are outlined in the 'Pierre de Coubertin' Action Plan, annexed to the White Paper.

Regarding the health-enhancing role of sport, a Commission document states that "sport organisations are gradually beginning to take on new health-enhancing roles for example in relation to the dramatic increase in childhood and youth obesity." A recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report also highlights evidence of how physical activity and sports improve people's physical and mental health.

A recent Eurobarometer survey addresses the health and physical characteristics of Europeans, their diets and problems related to obesity and lack of exercise. The survey reveals sharp differences in the level of physical activity in the EU. The Luxembourgers, Finns and Germans appear to be the most sporty of EU citizens, with one in four declaring they regularly enjoyed physical activity via sport or other leisure pastimes. But only 4% of Italians and 5% of Greeks make the same claim. 

The respondents declare to spend on average more than six hours per day seated and in more than half of the countries, close to 50% of respondents do not take any exercise, despite three-quarters declaring that the area where they live "offers sufficient opportunities to be physically active". 

The results of a previous sport survey (November 2004) state that fees or the lack of infrastructures are not the causes for little exercise but rather the constraints of modern society - the lack of time due to professional activity or family responsibilities. 

The survey also confirms the importance of sport in transmitting essential values such as team work, discipline or friendship and shows strong support for ensuring a better place for sport in school curricula. A strong majority of EU citizens name the improvement of health as being the principal benefit of sport (78%). The development of physical performance (46%), relaxation (43%), having fun (39%), and the fact of being with friends (31%) are other benefits associated with sport. Survey results point to a serious decrease in the proportion of respondents seeing the 'relaxation' and 'having fun' benefits of sport.

Sport England, the UK government agency responsible for advising, investing in and promoting community sport, recently conducted the largest ever survey of sport and active recreation in Europe. The Active People survey (2006) examining sports participation in the UK revealed disappointing levels of participation in active recreation. It also showed that English men (23.7%) are slightly more regular in sport than women (18.3%) and that the highest socio-economic groups (25.1%) are far more active in taking regular physical exercise than the lowest socio-economic groups (16.3%).

Positions

Leading EU politicians, including have expressed concern at the growing number of young people affected by obesity. Results of a Commission study on young people's lifestyles are judged "alarming" and Commissioner Kyprianou has pointed out that "Europe's expanding waistline brings with it devastating consequences for public health and huge economic costs".

The World Health Organisation (WHO) regional office for Europe argues that participation in sports and other physical activities "is influenced by the built, natural and social environments in which people live," and therefore urges urban planners to take this evidence into account when deciding on city structures. 

The UK sport minister Richard Caborn said that the recent Active People survey (2006) on sports participation in the UK showed disappointing levels of participation in active recreation. "In the last decade we have invested a record £3 billion of public money in state-of-the-art facilities across England that are both accessible and affordable. The government can only do so much. Individuals must start to take responsibility for their health and fitness too." 

Following the 2006 Health Survey for England results stating that the UK will face a serious obesity problem by 2010, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed, in August 2006, a public health minister to work across government on a new strategy to increase the UK population's fitness and activity levels. 

Finland is also currently preparing a national sports action plan to promote physical activity to its citizens. The final aim is to promote citizens' well being and health.

A report authored by Professor Ken Hardman of the UK's University of Worcester for the European Parliament's Committee on Culture and Education, recommends a) introduction of compulsory physical education in schools b) modernisation of the physical education curriculum, and c) adoption of a minimum two hours physical education per week, with the aim of increasing it to three hours in the long term. 

"Let's use schools' physical education facilities after school hours, in the evening and weekends as well, to provide children with more opportunities to be physically active. I'm sure that children would be happy to play, for example, basketball at their school's sport hall after school hours and that their parents would be happy to know that they are doing so," said MEP Karin Resetarits (Austria, Alde). 

MEP Ljudmila Novak (Slovenia, EPP-ED): "Local authorities need to be forced to do something to increase access to sporting facilities. Many families currently live too far away from any sport facilities to be able to take part in sports." 

Dr van Bottenburg from the WJH Mulier Institut says that what is required is not so much statistical data on sport participation but comparable data across time and between countries, which currently lacks in the EU. He argues that the EU could play a stimulating role through co-ordination, agenda-setting, research and funding.

Timeline

  • Oct 2006: Sports Directors meeting highlighted the role of voluntary sports associations and clubs in promoting citizens' participation in sports activities.
  • Feb 2007:study on current situation and prospects for physical education in the EU was debated in a Parliament hearing.  
  • July 2007: The Commission published a White Paper on Sport
  • 8-9 Oct. 2007: A Commission conference to discuss the White Paper with sport stakeholders (see conference report and structured dialogue paper). 
  • 29 March 2010: Eurobarometer on Sport and Physical Activity.

Further Reading

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