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Improving health through physical activity and sports

The WHO defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” 17. Scientific evidence has shown the major beneficial effects of physical activity on all three aspects of health18. Numerous physical, mental, and social health benefits of physical activity are presented in Figure 2.

The physical fitness and health status of children and adolescents may be substantially improved by regular participation in physical activity. Compared to their inactive peers, physically active children and adolescents have higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular endurance, and strength. The well-documented health benefits include a reduced risk of obesity, more favourable cardiovascular and metabolic disease risk profiles, enhanced bone health, and improved mental health 18,19.

In both adults and seniors, physical activity reduces the risk of all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer mortality. Other key health benefits of physical activity include a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.

Figure 2. Key health benefits of physical activity (adapted from Pedisic 201120).

In addition, physical activity positively affects mental health by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, improves the ability to cope with psycho-social stressors, and potentially delays the adverse effects of different forms of dementia. Furthermore, physical activity is a key determinant of energy expenditure and is, therefore, fundamental to achieving energy balance and weight control18.

Physical activity may improve physical functioning. Throughout childhood and adolescence, physical activity is necessary for the development of basic motor skills as well as musculoskeletal development21. Physical activity helps adults maintain muscle strength and improve their cardiorespiratory fitness and bone health. It also helps seniors maintain health and mobility needed for their functional independence and social participation18,20.

The current physical activity recommendations for health22 (Table 1) indicate that children and adolescents should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity every day, with preferably at least three sessions of vigorous-intensity activity each week. Adults and seniors should undertake at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, and at least two sessions of muscle-strengthening activities, each week. Higher levels of physical activity may provide both children and adults with greater health benefits; however, even a small amount of activity is better than none. Therefore, persons who cannot adhere to all physical activity guidelines for health-related or any other reasons should be as active as their circumstances allow.

Table 1. Physical activity recommendations for different age groups

  • Children and adolescents (5-17 years old)
    Children and adolescents should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity every day, with preferably at least 3 sessions of vigorous-intensity activity each week, including bone- and muscle-strengthening activities.
  • Adults (18-64 years old)
    Adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, and at least 2 sessions of muscle-strengthening activities involving major muscle groups, each week.
  • Seniors (65 years old and older)
    Seniors should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, and at least 2 sessions of muscle-strengthening activities involving major muscle groups, each week. Those with poor mobility should also engage in physical activities designed to improve balance and prevent falls at least 3 times a week.

Despite the known health benefits of physical activity, more than one-third of European adults are insufficiently active23. Recent figures from EU member states indicate that six out of every ten adults never or seldom exercise or play sports24. Promoting sports participation has a great potential to reduce the prevalence of insufficient physical activity in the EU.

An increasing amount of evidence suggests that vigorous-intensity physical activities, including playing sports, can potentially provide even greater health benefits than moderate-intensity physical activity. This is an encouraging and important fact for members of the sports sector, because many sports are classified as vigorous-intensity physical activities. In 2013, Samitz and colleagues25 systematically reviewed 80 studies on the association between physical activity and the risk of all-cause mortality, which included more than 1.3 million participants. Participation in “vigorous exercise and sports” showed the greatest reduction in the risk of all-cause mortality, followed by participation in “moderate and vigorous leisure-time activities”, “moderate activities of daily living”, “walking”, and “transport-related physical activity”.

In 2015, Oja and colleagues26 systematically reviewed studies on the health benefits of different sport disciplines. Evidence on health benefits was available for 26 sports, with most studies placing a focus on jogging/running and recreational football. In another paper published in 2016, Oja and colleagues27 showed that among middle-aged and older adults participation in cycling, swimming, aerobics, and racquet sports reduces the risk of premature death. Farahmand and colleagues28 had previously reported similar reductions in the risk of premature death for individuals who played golf. These findings clearly demonstrate that sports have a great potential to improve population health.

Key health benefits to children and youth

  • increased cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness
  • reduced risk of obesity
  • improved cardiovascular and metabolic risk profiles
  • improved bone health
  • reduced symptoms of depression
  • improved self-esteem
  • improved development of gross motor skills
  • improved socialisation

Key health benefits to adults

  • reduced risk of all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer mortality
  • reduced risk of a number of chronic diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer)
  • increased cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness
  • improved cardiovascular and metabolic risk profiles
  • reduced risk of obesity
  • improved bone health
  • improved mental well-being

Key health benefits to seniors

  • reduced risk of all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer mortality
  • reduced risk of a number of chronic diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer)
  • reduced risk of falls
  • improved physical functioning
  • increased cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness
  • improved cardiovascular and metabolic risk profiles
  • reduced risk of obesity
  • improved bone health
  • improved cognitive functioning
  • improved mental well-being
  • reduced risk of loneliness

The sports club as a setting for health promotion

During the development of the SCforH concept, the potential for sports clubs to provide opportunities for health-enhancing physical activity was recognised, which has led to considerable interest and action in both research and practice. The natural parallels and areas of overlap between sports and health have prompted researchers to also consider how the sports club could be utilised as a setting to promote health in a broader sense, beyond touting the health benefits of physical activity (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Aspects of sports club activities and their health dimensions (adapted from Kokko & Vuori 200729)

The core business of a sports club is to organize sporting activities. However, they may also organise any related health promotion activities. This should begin with a careful examination of how the club can embed the promotion of health in their administrative activities, communication, management, and coaching, to achieve physical, social, and mental health benefits. Equally so, sports clubs may extend the focus of their sporting activities into areas such as inclusion, retention, and other health behaviours, and target groups such as females, seniors, and individuals with disabilities. Such activities would require a multi-layered, multi-faceted, club-level approach, which would extend beyond that of individual programmes and would reflect the concept of a Health Promoting Sports Club (HPSC)15.

Sports clubs that wish to function as a Health Promoting Sports Club (HPSC) should first consider how they can develop, implement, and evaluate health promotion as part of their activities. As with any such activity, club representatives should examine how they can integrate this health promotion ethos into the club policy and practice to ensure that sustained change takes place within their setting. Recommendations for clubs that would like to develop into a Health Promoting Sports Club (HPSC) can be found elsewhere.30