Europeans Don’t Exercise Enough – And Policy-Makers Should Do More to Encourage Them

A third of Europeans don’t meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines for physical activity – but if they did, this would avert over 10 000 premature deaths, almost four million cases of cardiovascular disease, three and a half million cases of depression and nearly a million cases of type two diabetes by 2050.

This is according to a report launched on Friday by the WHO Europe and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which urges policy-makers to adopt strategies to increase people’s physical activity.

The findings are based on a recent Eurobarometer survey conducted for the European Commission which found that 45% of the respondents report that they never exercise or play sport, an increase of 6% since 2009. 

People in Finland (71%), Luxembourg (63%), the Netherlands (60%), and Denmark and Sweden (both 59%) were the most likely to exercise, while people in Portugal, Greece and Poland were least likely to exercise.

“We find that it’s worse among women, with some countries having almost half of all adult women not meeting the WHO recommended guidelines on physical activity,”  OECD health policy analyst Sabine Vuik told the launch on Friday.

Meanwhile, less than a quarter of people who consider themselves to be working class exercise at least once a week, and over half of all adults surveyed said that they exercised less frequently since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recommended activity

The WHO recommends that everyone does at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity every week.

“This could be a half-hour run twice a week, running about 10 kilometres per hour, but it doesn’t need to be formal exercise. It can also be walking the dog every day for half an hour,” added Vuik.

OECD health analyst Sabine Vuik

“Our analysis shows that larger countries such as Germany, France and Italy can save more than €1 billion every year if everyone were to meet the physical activity guidelines. And across the EU, we could save €8 billion every year in healthcare expenditure if everyone meets the minimum recommended guidelines.”

WHO Europe regional director Dr Hans Kluge, said that the report “provides evidence that investing in policies that promote physical activity not only improves individual well-being and population health, but also pays economic dividends”. 

“Every €1 invested in physical activity generates an almost two-fold return of €1.7 in economic benefits. We need to communicate the benefits of being active, not just the physical benefits, but the benefits to mental health, the environment and society in the WHO European Region, and we need to make sure that our systems can and will sustain these changes – as real, long-term transformation,” added Kluge, who is an avid cyclist and cycles to work and back daily.

The report calls on policymakers to step up the policy response to increase physical activity in schools, in urban and transport design and in healthcare settings and workplaces.

Since 2015, some EU countries have adopted policies to improve access to physical activity. For example, Finland adopted a resolution to promote active modes of transportation, Austria builds up co-operation between sports clubs and primary schools and Bulgaria develops a programme to help people whose jobs involve sitting for long periods. 


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