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Target the most inactive in physical activity programs: UK experts

8 June 2017

Australian policy makers should target those who are most physically inactive to achieve the greatest societal gains, say the chief architects of England’s much-lauded participation policy.

Dr Justin Varney

Speaking at a seminar sponsored by the Prevention Centre and the Prevention Research Collaboration, Dr Justin Varney of Public Health England and Ms Kay Thomson of Sport New Zealand outlined the steps they had taken to achieve England’s highly successful sport and physical activity strategy.

England has a national commitment that everyone, regardless of their age, background or level of ability, should be able to engage in sport or physical activity every day.

‘Everybody Active Every Day’ is a national, evidence-based approach that lays out a blueprint to create a social movement toward a more active society, to activate networks of professionals to support physical activity, to create the right spaces for active environments, and to scale up physical activity interventions.

The movement began in 2005, when the UK won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics. As part of the bid, it set targets to have 2 million more people active and 1 million more engaged in sport by 2012.

Over the past 12 years, the UK has moved from a focus exclusively on elite sport to one in which sporting organisations work with other sectors to deliver a variety of outcomes mainly focused on participation and increased physical activity for everyone.

Timely visit

Dr Varney and Ms Thompson’s visit to Australia was organised by Professor Bill Bellew from the Prevention Research Collaboration. Professor Bellew said their visit was timely, coming at a pivotal moment when Australia’s strategic approach to physical activity, sport and active recreation was entering a period of reform and renewed interest among policy makers.

They met with key ministers and policy makers and presented at a series of meetings and seminars for Australian policy makers keen to learn from England’s experience.

Dr Varney told the seminar that the key target should be people engaging in less than 30 minutes of physical activity per week, as they contributed the most to the burden of disease and were at highest risk of social isolation.

Encouraging these people to move just a little more – for example, to walk to the end of their street rather than just to their car – could make a significant difference in their quality of life, he said.

Dr Lou Hardy, PRC Senior Research Fellow leading the NSW Schools Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey (SPANS), told the seminar that recently released 2015 data indicated only 28% of boys and 18% of girls in NSW primary schools engaged in the recommended level of 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity a day. By adolescence, that level dropped to 15% and 8% respectively.

Almost half of NSW children and adolescents had no idea what the physical activity recommendation was, while only two thirds achieved adequate cardio-respiratory fitness levels and a third were at the acceptable level of muscular fitness, she said.

–  Helen Signy, Senior Communications Officer