This article is part of our special report Physical inactivity: A ticking timebomb in the EU.
SPECIAL REPORT / While the economic benefits of physical activity are widely documented, policymakers still struggle to translate scientific evidence into policy, health experts say.
Lack of physical activity – along with unhealthy diets – are key risk factors for major non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Thirty to 70% of EU citizens are currently overweight, while 10-30% are considered obese, according to the WHO, which warned against an obesity crisis in Europe over the coming decades.
To counter the “epidemic”, the WHO recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. This, it argues, would reduce the risk of ischaemic heart disease by approximately 30%, the risk of diabetes by 27%, and the risk of breast and colon cancer by 21–25%.
However, Europeans are much less active than that.
A Eurobarometer survey published last year looked at how much EU citizens engage in physical activity and sport, following up on comparable surveys carried out in 2002 and 2009.
The 2014 survey found that the number of people reporting that they never exercise or play sport increased by three percentage points from the 2009 survey (from 39% to 42%).
Though 48% engage in other physical activities, for recreational or non-sport-related reasons, such as cycling from one place to another, gardening or dancing at least once a week, 30% said they never engage in this kind of activity at all.
About two-thirds of respondents said they sit between 2.5 and 8.5 hours on average each day, an increase of five percentage points compared with 2002. 11% meanwhile, said they sit for more than 8.5 hours each day.
Biggest health issue of the 21st century
“I think physical inactivity is the biggest public health problem of the 21st century,” said Steven Blair, professor in the departments of Exercise Science and Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of South Carolina.
“We continue to see that inactivity and low fitness are major determinants of health outcomes,” Blair said, drawing his conclusions from countless scientific articles on physical activity, physical fitness, and health outcomes.
“Low fitness is at least as strong a predictor of mortality as any of the other risk factors, including smoking and obesity,” he warned.
And the consequences can be substantial, Blair emphasised, weighing heavily on public finances as more people line up for medical treatment. In 2013, the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) published a policy document stating that governments are not wholeheartedly engaging in effective measures to curb obesity.
“On current trends, and if no changes are made to the healthcare coverage, governments in Europe will soon be facing rapidly increasing costs related to the treatment of illnesses and health problems associated with obesity,” the ECIPE said.
But the benefits of physical activity go beyond avoided healthcare costs.
The European Commission has established a link between physical activity and improved labour markets, saying young people can improve their professional and personal skills through sport. These include values such as teamwork, discipline, creativity and leadership, the Commission argues, noting these are qualities that help enhance young people’s employability.
The benefits of physical activity were earlier recognised in a Commission white paper, published in 2007, which for the first time introduced a “comprehensive initiative” on sport at EU level, in line with the new requirements set out by the Lisbon Treaty.
With those initiatives, the Commission wanted to enhance public health through physical activity and emphasise the role of sport in education, volunteer activities, social inclusion and in the fight against racism.
The benefits of physical activity were later also recognised at ministerial level, when the Council adopted recommendations on health-enhancing physical activity (HEPA) in 2013. The recommendations aimed to encourage further cooperation among diverse sectors that have a role to play in this field – ranging from education to urban planning and the work environment.
In order to encourage people to engage more in sport and physical activity, the Commission also plans to launch a European Week of Sport, in September 2015.
Too much focus on sport
But despite these initiatives, health campaigners believe European citizens are not sufficiently encouraged to exercise.
“The Commission’s approach to physical activity is too narrowly focused on promoting sport, whereas protecting and improving health should be considered in all policies,” said Nina Renshaw, Secretary General of the NGO European Public Health Alliance (EPHA).
“That means looking at how other relevant policies could encourage activity in our daily lives,” Renshaw told EURACTIV.
She mentioned transport policy and regional funding as the most obvious areas where the EU could take further action, by encouraging active travel, including walking and biking.
“EU policies have the opposite effect and still encourage car-centric planning, especially in regional policy. But also, for example, the EU allows subsidies and tax breaks for company cars and fossil fuels – especially diesel – which damages our health even further,” Renshaw said.
The health benefits of taking up cycling are similar to those of giving up smoking and save health services €1,300 per person per year. If all Londoners exercised 20 minutes per day, there would be a 12% reduction in heart disease and a fall of over 20% in some types of cancer, EPHA said.
“The EU impact assessment process is very weak on valuing health benefits in other policy areas. Health barely factors in transport policy or spending decisions,” said Renshaw, adding that she does not expect the new impact assessment as part of the Commission’s ‘Better Regulation’ agenda would improve the issue.