Friday, June 14, 2024

Health through sport: WHO guides sports bodies in promoting the benefits of active living

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Inclusive, sustainable, welcoming national sports federations is a new WHO publication which aims to help national sports federations connect with affiliated clubs that sometimes lack information and support to ask questions to amplify the advantages of active living. Sports organizations that prioritize the health of their members and communities can become drivers of positive change across the WHO European Region and beyond. They can have a life-changing impact on the health of children and young people. Across the European Union (EU), 59% of children and young people are inspired to develop themselves by participating at sports clubs, where coaches and managers are active role models.

Becoming more health focused

Physical activity lifts people’s moods, improves focus and concentration and provides protection against cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). For these reasons, WHO recommends that adults undertake at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week, and the more the better.

“This guidance can help sports federations to develop a culture of health promotion in their sports clubs. Beyond promoting competition and athletic performance, with the right policies in place, sports clubs can have an important impact on whether local people are physically active and eat a healthy diet, as well as avoiding unhealthy behaviours, such as alcohol and tobacco use,” said Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, WHO Europe’s Regional Adviser for Nutrition, Obesity and Physical Activity.

The new WHO guidance – produced with funding from the EU’s Erasmus+ programme in the context of European cooperation on health-enhancing physical activity (HEPA) – includes examples of good programmes, a list of concrete strategies and interventions, and 28 tools for sports federations to choose from.

Creating a virtuous circle

Healthy lives are lived in many settings, including sports clubs, where more than 615 million people in the EU practise and spend their free time. Participation in sports has great potential to improve physical and mental well-being and to encourage positive life choices. 

According to a recent WHO/Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, increasing physical activity to the levels recommended by WHO can save the EU up to €8 billion in PPP (power purchasing parities) every year. To this end, sports federations can be major drivers of change across all WHO European Member States.

“When individuals recognize that their health and well-being are valued by sports federations and clubs, they become inspired to invest their personal resources in strengthening the capacity of sports federations and clubs to promote health. This enhances the performance of high-level athletes, creates grassroots movements, helps to retain clubs’ participants, coaches and managers, and sets in motion a virtuous cycle, yielding even greater dividends in the future,” says Aurelie Van Hoye, one of the lead authors of the WHO guidance. 

Case study: French Football Federation (FFF)

One of the case studies in the WHO guidance looks at the health policies of France’s FFF. Founded in 1919, the Federation now excels in grassroots and elite football, with 1.9 million members and 400 000 volunteers across 15 000 clubs. 

Health seamlessly integrates into the Federation’s framework, particularly through its comprehensive educational programme. This spans clubs, offering accessible guidelines and case studies via the FFF’s information resources. Annual leaflets delivered to clubs from the Fondation du Football spotlight themes like education, diversity, and health. This reflects a coordinated health promotion approach, aiming to disseminate tools and training.

While health promotion is not explicitly mentioned on the FFF’s website, the Federation organically upholds values like enjoyment, respect, commitment, tolerance, and solidarity. 

To bring health even higher up the agenda, the FFF could develop a single coordinated programme with tools, training and guidelines, and introduce an evaluation system with core indicators. The new WHO guidance provides ideas for creating such a system.

Five major policy strategies 

Based on the latest evidence, the WHO guidance sets out a few major policy strategies that sports federations can use to improve health and well-being.

  • Build healthy public policy, by
    prioritizing health at all levels of sport, raising awareness among decision-makers about the impact of their choices.
  • Create a supportive environment for health, by
    ensuring sports settings are safe, stimulating, and enjoyable, enhancing the well-being of athletes and members.
  • Strengthen community action for health, by
    ensuring clubs provide accessible information, and increasing quality of sports practice, learning opportunities, partnerships, and funding for healthier practices.
  • Develop personal skills, by
    encouraging continuous personal and social development, giving individuals more control over their health.
  • Re-orient health services, by
    viewing sports club members holistically, not only as sports participants, but as whole individuals, emphasizing health promotion and supporting healthy lives within the community.

“We hope that sports federations find the evidence-based tools presented in this report to promote health useful to diversify their sports practice so that everyone can enjoy and benefit from sport. The principles behind this report align with the EU Recommendation on Health-Enhancing Physical Activity and the Commission’s HealthyLifestyle4All campaign, and provide a concrete tool to realize progress in this area,” said Floor van Houdt, Head of the Sports Unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture.


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