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Physical activity promoting policies in the era of COVID-19: is Europe on the right track?

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Physical activity promoting policies in the era of COVID-19: is Europe on the right track?


European Union (EU) countries have been making gains in the development of policy on physical activity promotion since 2015, but during the COVID-19 pandemic progress has slowed down, shows a recent WHO publication. The new report, “2021 physical activity factsheets for the European Union Member States of the WHO European Region”, is based on data from all 27 EU Member States and presents an overview of policies and actions that have been implemented in the countries to promote health-enhancing physical activity (HEPA).

Regular physical activity provides health benefits to everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. Among adults, physical activity contributes to the prevention and control of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, anxiety, depression, dementia and obesity, and reduces overall mortality and premature deaths.

Physical inactivity: a serious risk factor for the Region

The report provides an overview summarizing the overall situation across the EU, as well as detailed country factsheets for each EU Member State. Indicators in the report signify what kind of WHO-recommended HEPA policies have been implemented in each country.

According to the report, an overall improvement in policy indicators can be observed between 2015 and 2021. Across the Region, the average proportion of the 23 indicators accomplished by Member States increased from 2015 to 2021, although the pace of progress slowed down after 2018.

“In the WHO European Region, around a third of adults are physically inactive. Lack of physical activity is closely connected to overweight and obesity, and consequently to many noncommunicable diseases and health risks,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “It is time for us to remember that healthy habits – from balanced diets to physical activity – are key factors that protect our health much more than we tend to think.”

EU policies implementation: what’s new?

As the report data shows, in 2021 countries of the EU had made progress implementing the following measures:

  • supporting interventions to promote physical activity in older adults (74% of countries);
  • promoting physical activity in the workplace (74% of countries);
  • training of physical education teachers (89% of countries);
  • granting wider access to exercise facilities for socially disadvantaged groups (78% of countries);
  • producing national recommendations on physical activity for health (85% of countries).

WHO and the European Commission: commitment to promoting healthy lifestyles for all

To increase physical activity levels, WHO has been collaborating closely with the European Commission and EU Member States to increase health-enhancing physical activity across the region. This collaboration has helped to enhance policy and practice in line with the WHO European Programme of Work 2020–2025 – “United Action for Better Health in Europe”.

The launch of the new report marked the start of an initiative called Healthy Lifestyles 4 All (HL4A) led by WHO/Europe and the European Commission. The 2-year campaign will showcase efforts and support countries in the EU to promote healthy lifestyles across generations and social groups, and to promote a global approach across policies and sectors – linking food, health, well-being and sport.

As an open and collaborative project, HL4A invites sports organizations, civil society, and international, national, regional and local authorities to join and create projects that bring together sports, physical activity and healthy diets. All participating organizations can submit a commitment for concrete actions in the online Pledge Board. WHO/Europe has submitted its contributions.

Looking forward, this important collaboration between WHO/Europe and the European Commission can play a role in supporting the societal and economic recovery from COVID-19, with a sustained and coordinated focus on attainment of a 15% reduction in physical inactivity by 2030 and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Impact of COVID-19 on physical activity

Physical activity can take place in various settings, during leisure-time activities, at school, at the workplace and at home during daily activities. However, maintaining sufficient levels of physical activity is becoming more difficult as most daily environments have become more sedentary.

According to the new WHO report, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of our environments and our access to opportunities to be physically active as part of daily life.

“Lockdowns and limited access to public and indoor spaces had a negative impact on levels of physical activity that were already at very low levels before the pandemic. Some countries of the WHO European Region still feel this impact. Now is a good time to bring physical activity levels up again. There are various health-enhancing policies to choose from, and they work best when combined,” said Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, Acting Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.

By implementing HEPA policies, countries of the WHO European Region can provide long-term benefits for people’s health and health systems.



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