Written by Ivana Katsarova,
Graphics: Samy Chahri, Nadejda Kresnichka-Nikolchova,
The low levels of physical activity among both children and adults in the European Union (EU) are alarming, and have become a matter of great concern to policy-makers. To raise awareness of the role and benefits of sport and physical activity, the European Commission launched the European Week of Sport back in 2015. The fourth annual round of the event will officially kick off in Vienna’s Prater Park on 22 September this year.
Physical inactivity and obesity: a global epidemic
The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies physical inactivity as one of the leading factors for global mortality, provoking 6 % of cases of coronary heart disease, 7 % of type 2 diabetes, 10 % of breast cancer, and 10 % of colon cancer. If inactivity decreased by 10 % to 25 %, it would be possible to avoid between 533 000 and 1.3 million deaths every year. Similarly, research shows that the cost of obesity worldwide stands at €1.8 trillion – equivalent to the GDP of Italy or Russia – and has the same impact on the global economy as armed violence, war and terrorism.
Physical activity guidelines
There is a strong and growing body of evidence indicating that regular physical activity is one of the fundamentals of adult health. The WHO recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity a week for adults, and 60 minutes a day for children.
Physical (in)activity in the EU
Worryingly, the results of the 2018 Eurobarometer survey on sport and physical activity show that nearly half of respondents (46 %) never exercise or play sport – up 7 % from 2009 – (see Figure 1). Moreover, the WHO estimates that a quarter of European adults and four-fifths of European adolescents are insufficiently active. It also reveals that each year, physical inactivity claims over 500 000 lives across Europe and generates €80.4 billion in economic costs for the EU-28. This amount represents 6.2 % of all European health spending, €5 billion more than the annual global spend on cancer drugs, and half of Ireland or Portugal’s annual GDP. Conservative estimates put the annual cost of physical inactivity in 2030 at over €125 billion (in 2012 prices).
An early start is key
Introducing physical activity in the daily routine from an early age is essential for children, since it allows them to grow, learn and develop. More importantly, it helps them remain physically active as they get older, because physical activity will already be an important part of their life. Outside school, children have fewer opportunities to be active, due to the increasing popularity of the car as a mode of transport and the computer or the TV as a mode of recreation. Given that children spend extensive periods of time at school and that up to 80 % of them only practice sport there, schools become instrumental in promoting physical activity.
Being physically active at school
Physical education is included in all school curricula in the EU, and is compulsory in primary and secondary (see Figure 2). However, on average, less than 70 hours a year are dedicated to this subject, which is roughly a third of the time dedicated to the language of instruction and around half of that for maths. While some believe more sport will leave children with less time to achieve better marks, this does not seem to be the case. A number of researchers have found a positive link between children’s physical activity and academic achievement. Indeed, various studies indicate that increased participation in physical activity leads to enhanced learning and better grades.
EU support and involvement
The fourth round of the European Week of Sport kicks off in September
The idea for a European Week of Sport originated in a 2011 European Parliament resolution on the European dimension in sport, which recommended setting up an annual large-scale event to raise awareness of the role and benefits of sport and physical activity. The event is an EU‑wide initiative, led by the European Commission and implemented at EU, national, regional and local level, with the help of national coordinators and in partnership with sports organisations and stakeholders. The first edition of the European Week of Sport took place in 2015 and received a positive appraisal. Since then, nearly 15 million Europeans have taken part in over 37 000 events organised as part of the initiative in the 32 participating countries across Europe. On 29 September 2017, a spin-off of the sports event – the European School Sport Day® – engaged more than 2 million students from 26 countries in 7 000 events.
Erasmus+: creating opportunities for children and adults
In July 2017, the Council adopted a new three-year EU work plan for sport. Furthermore, financial support was for the first time allocated for sport in Erasmus+ – the EU programme for education, training, youth and sport for the 2014-2020 period. The allocation amounts to around €266 million over the entire period and serves to fund various projects (see Figures 3 and 4).
Read this ‘At a glance’ note on ‘Ready, steady, go: European Week of Sport 2018‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.