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EU initiatives to promote physical exercise - questions & answers

31 August 2007
by eub -- last modified 31 August 2007

The European Commission and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) are launching a joint TV advertising campaign that aims to encourage European citizens to make physical activity part of their daily lives. The advert encourages viewers to get out of their armchairs and be physically active, using the slogan "Go on, get out of your armchair'. Millions of Europeans are expected to view the advert, as it will be screened free of charge during the half-time break of this season’s televised Champions League football games. This initiative comes at a time when poor diets and low levels of physical activity in Europe account for six of the seven leading risk factors for ill health in Europe. The lack of physical exercise, coupled with unbalanced diets, has turned obesity into a serious public health problem. In most EU Member States more than half of the adult population is overweight or obese. It is also estimated that almost 22 million children are overweight in the EU and each year this figure is growing by 400,000.


How is the European Commission trying to promote physical exercise?

The European Commission promotes physical activity through a wide variety of activities and initiatives. The overall strategy is set out in the recent White Paper on A strategy for Europe on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity related health issues (30 May 2007). This strategy is being implemented in close cooperation with the Member States and stakeholders through the EU Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

What is the EU Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health all about?

The Platform was launched on March 15, 2005. It is a practical example of the Commission’s commitment to better and simpler regulation. It brings together a broad range of key stakeholders in an open and pro-active way. As all stakeholders participate voluntarily, it allows actions to be taken much faster than through legislation.

Who are the members of this platform?

The Platform brings together the key EU-level representatives of the food, retail, catering, and advertising industries, the cooperative movement, consumer organisations, health professionals and health NGOs. Its founding members are the European Commission, the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA), EuroCommerce – which represents the retail, wholesale and international trade sectors in Europe, the European Community of Consumer Cooperatives (EURO COOP), the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC), the European Heart Network (EHN), the European Modern Restaurants Association, the European Vending Association (EVA), the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF), the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME) and the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA). The World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have joined the Platform as observers.

The Platform has actively tried to involve members representing the physical activity sectors. The European Non-Governmental Sports Organisation (ENGSO), the Federation of the European Play Industry (FEPI), the International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA) and the European Health and Fitness Association (EHPA) are now members of the Platform.

What are the “commitments” adopted by the Platform members?

These key pledges vary in size from focused local actions to Europe-wide multi-sector initiatives. They include the food industry’s promise to arrive at common marketing communications principles, to be in place in 80% of Member States by 2007, the initiatives of the European soft drinks association not to market its products directly to children under 12 as well asreformulation initiatives.

Are there any specific examples of commitments relating to physical activity?

There are several specific examples. There is, for instance the "Fit am Ball" ("Fit on the Ball") initiative in Germany. It represents one of the commitments of the European Snack Association and it aims to prevent excess weight among school children. This is a scientific project developed by the Sport University of Cologne and the focus is on weekly sports clubs and nutrition education in schools for children between 8 and 12. It is Germany's largest physical exercise development program for the prevention of obesity. Evaluation results are presented and discussed on yearly scientific conferences named “International Sustainability Conference Fit am Ball (FABCON).

One of the Commitments from the European Heart Foundation is the three-week sports campaign in Finland ("Sports Adventure Around the Globe") targeting school children between the ages of six and 12. Children are encouraged to exercise at least two hours per day, and are guided through healthy eating and sleeping habits. About 50% of all schoolchildren in the aforementioned age group, from 9,200 classes across Finland, took part in the 2006 Sports Adventure.

The Polish Federation of Food Industries, a member of CIAA, has committed itself to financing the "Keep Fit" programme in Poland. This programme evolves around three principles summed up in the phrases: "Variety is the Key", "Intelligent Eating" and "Physical Activity." It aims to improve kids' knowledge concerning health-related issues. An important feature of the program is that it links health-related issues with physical activity, showing that all kinds of activity (apart from sports) help to maintain one's fitness and health. Currently, the programme covers 5,000 schools in Poland.

"Let's Get Moving" represents another CIAA commitment coming from France and, in particular, the Groupe DANONE and Institut Danone France. It consists of a web site, a mobile sports course (Nutripark), a call centre and a pedagogical kit for schools. The "Faut que ca Bouge!" programme, promoted by football star Zinedine Zidane, helps and encourages children and teenagers (from eight to 14 years old) to be physically active and have a balanced diet. Leaflets promoting physical activities are also available for children and parents. "Faut que ca Bouge!" was launched in September 2005 and is planned to be continued every year. The website turned out to be very popular as only one month after the launch, already 13,000 web surfers visited it and each spent on average seven minutes on the site at each visit. In 2006, 60,000 web surfers visited the website.

Finally, there are also other initiatives with similar objectives that have no relation to the platform, but get full backing by the Commission. One such example is the "Shape Up" programme, which is funded under the EU’s Public Health Programme. This is a three-year school-community project (January 2006 - December 2008) aimed at enhancing children’s and young people’s competences to carry out health promoting actions and bring about positive changes in particular regarding balanced diet and regular physical activity. The specificity of Shape-up is that it involves the school and community, including families, from the start, jointly with the child in the development of all activities. The programme currently implemented in 26 cities of the European Union, allowed the creation of a European network of schools and local actors in all the member states sharing experiences and pedagogical Materials. It also facilitates cooperation and twinning agreements based on specific activities between participating cities.

Shape Europe

How does the Platform fit with the Commission’s wider strategy on nutrition and physical activity?

The Platform is one of several EU initiatives currently underway. For instance, the Commission is funding projects under the EU’s Public Health Programme, such as the aforementioned "Shape Up" Project. It has also launched a network of Member State experts on nutrition and physical activity and has adopted legislation to regulate the use of health and nutritional claims by companies marketing food. However, an overarching strategy was called for. Addressing obesity requires action in terms of nutrition but also promoting physical activity and healthy lifestyles. In December 2005 the Commission presented a Green Paper with its initial ideas on this. This Green Paper launched a broad consultation and its results were presented on September 11 2006. On May 30 2007 the Commission adopted a White Paper on Nutrition and Physical Activity, which is setting out a wide range of proposals on how the EU can tackle nutrition, overweight and obesity related health issues. The White Paper stressed, among other things, the benefit of physical activity and the need to encourage Europeans to exercise more.

Are there any other concrete actions taken or supported by the Commission in promoting physical activity?

Physical exercise embraces a range of activities, ranging from organised sports to active commuting (travelling to and from work on foot, by bicycle or in any other active way) and outdoor activities. The European Commission believes that the Member States and the EU must take proactive steps to reverse the decline of physical activities observed over the last decades. Within this spirit it has supported the following programmes:

  • CIVITAS (City-VITAlity-Sustainability programme). It aims to promote and implement sustainable, clean and (energy) efficient urban transport measures. Through CIVITAS I (2002-2006) 19 cities were clustered in four demonstration projects. Another 17 cities were clustered in four more demonstration projects in CIVITAS II. The EU will fund this €300-million initiative with €100 million.
  • Intelligent-Energy Europe programme. This programme aims to achieve the goal of better use of energy. However, projects supporting better planning for walking and cycling are expected to have a positive impact on everyday physical activity. ASTUTE, BYPAD and SPYCYCLES are considered to be such projects. ASTUTE concerns six urban areas (Budapest, Dublin, Granada, Graz, London and Siracusa) and aims to overcome organisation barriers preventing an increase in the use of walking and cycling in European urban centres. BYPAD aims to improve the quality of cycling policies and SPYCYCLES will provide the support cities need in order to increase the modal share of cycling on their streets.

The Commission's White Paper on Sport,adopted on July 11 2007 on the initiative of Commissioner Figel, aims to provide a strategic orientation on the role of sport in the EU. Through this paper, the Commission proposes the development, in co-operation with the Member States, of new physical activity guidelines before the end of 2008.

What is the situation in terms of obesity and overweight across the EU?

Overweight and obesity levels are increasing at an alarming rate, with up to 27% of European men and up to 38% of women now considered to be obese. The number of overweight children is also growing rapidly, rising by 400,000 a year. Obesity is a risk factor for many serious conditions including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and certain types of cancer. Poor nutrition and insufficient physical activity are among the leading causes of avoidable death in Europe. Obesity-related illnesses are estimated to account for as much as 7% of total healthcare costs in the EU.

Overall obesity levels in Southern Europe are higher than those in Northern Europe as traditional Mediterranean diets give way to more processed foods rich in fat, sugar and salt. Spain, Italy, Portugal, Malta and Crete report overweight and obesity levels exceeding 30% among 7-11 year olds, while England, Ireland, Cyprus, Sweden and Greece report levels of above 20%. France, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands and Bulgaria report overweight levels of 10-20% among this age group.

EU policy on nutrition and obesity

Source: European Commission

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