Towards 2012- an opportunity for physical exercise for ALL ages?

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Across Europe there is growing awareness among citizens of the importance of engaging in physical activity to maintain health and wellbeing.  Decreasing levels of activity among populations in Europe are, however, a particular concern, with the 2002 Eurobarometer study suggesting that two thirds of the adult population in EU countries is insufficiently active to achieve optimal health benefits[1].  While many express the intention and desire to be more physically active, this is often not translated into action.

Recently the ILC-UK studied the challenge for policy makers to understand why, despite the general awareness about the importance of physical activity since inactivity is a risk factor for many diseases and conditions , individuals are failing to do so.  In particular, there is a need to understand the significant inequalities in the levels of physical activity in relation to socioeconomic class, age, gender, ethnicity and disability.
Evidence emerging from research[2] supports the need for a comprehensive approach to promoting healthy behaviour and reducing health inequalities, offering tailored activities for different groups. Statistics masks significant inequalities that exist between various groups. In particular, those in lower socio-economic groups, ethnic minority groups, older people, individuals with disabilities and women in general are less likely to be active than the general population.
Our key questions were:
 •What policy interventions have been effective in improving the transition from an informative to a developing and implementative phase?
 •How can policy interventions tackle inequalities?
Arising from case studies and round table discussions, it was clear that the most effective approach should combine action in a number of areas:
•Designing the physical environment in a way that is conducive to increased activity
 •Encouraging community-based initiatives that involve citizens in developing a range of activities that reflect their preferences and are accessible in their neighbourhood
 •Supporting primary health care services to identify people at risk and refer them to community based initiative
So what next?
Recently in the UK there was the BUPA Great North Run, Cycle Skyride for all ages and the Memory Walk of the Alzheimer’s Association in London.
Also “Walking the Way to Health” initiatives, “More Active For Life” campaign represent fun activities that involve more people of all ages.
The 2012 Olympics in London surely give us an opportunity to focus on physical activity not just amongst the highest of athletes and encouragement of young people to take up sport but also a chance to think of the activity there could be right across generations.
Experienced sportspeople can be involved as mentors and coaches and replicate this activity at a local level, using local community facilities such as schools, community halls and leisure centres.
At the moment more than a thousand local authority pools in England have been offering free swimming to more than 20 million people aged 16 and under, or 60 and over, since April – with more than 250 councils backing the scheme, including 31 in London. It is disappointing however that despite the fact that more local authorities offer free swimming to older people than younger, there are significantly more younger people actually taking up the free swimming offer. The latest statistics revealed that  1.6 million free swims were taken by the over 60s compared with 2.8m free swims for children. In evaluating the success or otherwise of free swimming the Government should undertake research to understand why older people seem to be less likely than younger to benefit. Perhaps it isn’t the cost that is the main barrier, or perhaps local authorities are simply not as good at promoting the offer to older people.
In the light of these opportunities it would be great if GPs brought all the possibilities to the notice of the patients.
While the Olympic Games will entertain the masses let’s hope the benefits of the UK taking a lead for the 2012 Olympics gives the benefit of physical activity that can be replicated everywhere.
Noreeen Siba
 1) European Opinion Research Group. Special Eurobarometer: Physical activity. Brussels, European Commission Directorates-General for Health and Consumer Protection and for Press and Communication, 2003
 2) Physical Activity and Health in Europe: Evidence or Action, WHO Europe, 2006

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