Anyone who has spent a lot of time slumped in an armchair during the past few years may have dozed through the news that the EU now has guidelines on physical activity. Which is an added reason for the European Commission to estimate that when it comes to taking daily exercise, roughly half of all EU citizens are not doing enough to stay healthy. However, having an EU policy without the power to implement it leaves the Commission itself somewhat exercised.
The EU guidelines on physical activity, developed in collaboration with the World Health Organization, outline daily exercise quotas for adults and children. Even more ambitiously, they serve as a blueprint for member states to create their own national exercise plans, with their numerous recommendations on developing facilities and activities at central, regional and local levels, on training staff, and on subsequent monitoring and improvement of initiatives.
EU sports ministers endorsed the recommendations in November 2008 – at a time when only Finland, France, Luxembourg, Slovenia and the UK had national plans in place. They remain merely recommendations, and not binding. The choices over action lie entirely with individual member states.
Last month, however, Spain and Germany announced that they had adopted national exercise plans. “In Germany, the plan is founded on a federal cabinet decision,” says Jacob Kornbeck of the Commission’s department for education and culture.
Spain has gone even further, by adding its own provisions concerning people with disabilities. The Commission hopes these decisions will encourage similar action by other member states. “Even though the process itself is not legislative, not about adopting binding measures, it’s still a very strong signal to send out at a federal level,” Kornbeck says of the German decision.
The guidelines may also play a major role in the Commission’s communication on sport, which is expected in July.
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“It’s highly likely there will be something in it about a regular review mechanism in the Council [of Ministers], based on the EU guidelines,” says Kornbeck.
How much exercise is enough?
WHO/EU guidelines on daily physical activity
If you are healthy and aged between 18 and 65:
Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week or at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three days a week. You can do this in bouts of at least ten minutes and alternate between vigorous and less intense exercise.
If you are healthy and over 65:
As before, but prioritise exercises for strength and balance.
An hour or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. This can be in bouts of ten minutes or more and consist of a range of activities (for example, aerobics, weight-bearing exercise, strength training), according to the needs of the age group.
An initiative to combat child obesity in two small French towns is achieving global success, supported by the EU Platform on Nutrition and Physical Activity.
Epode – a French acronym for Together Let’s Prevent Childhood Obesity – started in Fleurbaix and Laventie, not far from Lille. Between 1992 and 2004 they developed a community prevention programme that hired sports educators and built new sporting facilities, organised walk-to-school days, and hired nutritionists to mentor children, families and schools into changing their menus, environments and behaviour.
The proportion of overweight children in the two towns fell from 11.2% in 1992 to 8.8% in 2004, according to a study published last year. Two nearby towns that did not adopt the strategy saw a rise from to 12.6% to 17.8%.
Through the EU platform, the programme, initially local and then national, became a network by joining forces with companies such as Ferrero, Mars, Nestlé and Orangina Schweppes, as well as with four universities and the European Association for the Study of Obesity. In Europe, the network now extends to 275 towns and cities – with 32 in Spain, 13 in Belgium and 5 in Greece. A five-year programme using the same method was launched in Australia last year, and Mexico will follow next.
A review system would identify disparities in the distribution of public funding for sport. It could induce countries that currently spend predominantly on elitist sports to switch funding to activities for the population at large.
The guidelines have already been implemented by sporting bodies – notably the International Sport and Culture Association, the European Health and Fitness Association, and the European Non-Governmental Sports Organisation.
The Commission is keen to maximise support to grass-roots initiatives of this sort, so it maintains an EU Platform on Nutrition and Physical Activity, which it launched in 2005. This brings together 32 stakeholders from local authorities, industry, research and civil society, and last year it launched 160 initiatives, each of which depends on a funding commitment from private partners in order to secure Commission support from the EU Health Programme. One success story involving exercise is the Epode network to combat childhood obesity.
“We have done a lot through the platform, but not enough. It’s not easy,” says Philippe Roux of the Commission’s department of health and consumer policy, which hosts the platform.
Coupled with its lack of leverage in this field, the Commission is aware of added difficulties in engaging with public stakeholders in member states.
“When it comes to sponsorship and financial support, they continue to be afraid of intervention by the food industry in education and sport,” says Roux.
Saffina Rana is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.