Fitness: If we heed the WHO’s advice, we could feel the Earth move

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The World Health Organization highlights four key ways in which communities can promote physical activity.

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According to the World Health Organization’s recently released Global Status Report on Physical Activity, 27.5 per cent of adults and 81 per cent of adolescents don’t meet the WHO’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week.

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Factor in the increased risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cancer, dementia and depression associated with a sedentary lifestyle, and the WHO estimates global treatment costs total about US$27 billion annually, with high-income countries responsible for 70 per cent of the financial burden.

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The WHO acknowledges measures to meet its goal of decreasing inactivity by 15 per cent by 2030 have been slow and unequal.

“Globally, there are inequities in levels of physical activity between women and men, girls and boys, old and young, and the socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged. This is unfair and unjust,” the organization says.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly played a part in the inability to get more people moving. But according to the WHO, so has a lack of buy-in from local, regional, national and international policy-makers.

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Some of the most significant drivers of change haven’t been government bodies or their non-governmental delegates, but citizens themselves. Grassroots change can be powerful when led with passion. Using the framework laid out by the WHO, community-minded individuals can lead change in their neighbourhoods, schools and places of work. Small wins can snowball into bigger wins, with the ultimate goal of changing our communities into places that make physical activity accessible to all.

The WHO recommends four strategic policy areas to get more people moving, all of which can be easily applied to local initiatives. They say it takes a village but, in reality, it starts with one.

Active environments

Safe, affordable and accessible spaces that enable people of all ages and abilities to move and play in different ways are a hallmark of an active community. If your neighbourhood, school or workplace needs more of these places, don’t be shy about suggesting areas for improvement. Speak up if your sidewalks aren’t cleared of snow, making walking in the winter difficult, or if bike paths, green spaces or parks are unsafe, in short supply or not accessible. Be the leader in creating a green commuting initiative at work, offering a place to store bikes and freshen up after cycling into the office, or other incentives to encourage staff to be active in the workplace. Environments should be created or renovated to invite physical activity, not discourage it.

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Active societies

Validate the importance of being active by making it part of the visible culture. Signage promoting the benefits of walking, cycling or taking the stairs should be visible in all public buildings. Directional signs highlighting the location of parks, bike paths, skating rinks, tennis courts and swimming pools should be standard practice.

Also important in getting more people active are inexpensive mass participation events, like fun runs, group walks or outdoor yoga, offered in schools, at work or in the community. Keep in mind that promotional campaigns should be thoughtfully designed to appeal to a variety of age groups and interests, with images representing all members of the community.

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Active people

It’s not just the quantity of recreational facilities or programs that helps create an active society. Equally important is the capacity to serve all members of the community regardless of age, gender or socioeconomic status. Women, girls and older adults have been traditionally less active in communities around the world, which suggests their needs aren’t being met. Opportunities to be active shouldn’t be limited to one-size-fits-all programs, as it’s a rare activity that appeals to or is appropriate for all ages and genders. Programming for the least active members of your community is an often forgotten strategy in getting more people moving every day.

Active systems

Leadership, partnerships and policy ensure the sustainability of good initiatives, allowing them to grow and develop over time. Retailers partnering with city-sponsored programs, cities partnering with schools and schools partnering with businesses create a large, diverse and dynamic network that shares goals and messaging. This is the gold standard when it comes to change.

Also important are local champions who can make sure initiatives keep their momentum, while also ensuring consideration in infrastructure, budget and resource planning. Empowering a group of leaders who believe in the potential of physical activity to improve societal health and wellness is a winning strategy for communities big and small.

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