New guidance on promoting physical activity in socially disadvantaged groups

WHO/Matthias Braubach

Not every playground is attractive for children

Today, WHO/Europe launches a policy summary and full report on promoting physical activity in socially disadvantaged groups. Scientific evidence shows that physical inactivity is a leading risk factor for ill health, and that these groups tend to have low levels of activity. Although the unequal distribution of physical-activity levels in populations is a major concern, awareness is growing that promotional campaigns may not be able to reach out equally well to all population groups.

The WHO project on promoting networking and action on healthy and equitable environments for physical activity (PHAN), co-funded by the Health Programme of the European Union, identified good practices and policy guidance to promote physical activity in socially disadvantaged groups, with a focus on healthy environments. The full report gives a detailed overview of the project group’s methods and conclusions on evidence, policies and interventions. The shorter publication summarizes the main policy findings.

Principles for targeted interventions

Owing to the wide range of target groups and possible interventions, the guidance avoids prescriptive recommendations. Nevertheless, socially disadvantaged groups may need more intensive support at all stages of a project, delivered through a variety of strategies that go beyond information provision.

Case studies in the report identify key principles for targeted action, such as the following.

  • Identify the target group and the expected outcomes specifically.
  • Recognize that more effort may be required to reach the target group.
  • Consider using peers or local facilitators (local champions) to promote activities.
  • Include evaluation in comparison to other population groups, recognizing that health improvements can only be achieved in the long term.
  • Combine changes to the environment with behavioural, social and/or information-related measures.
  • Ensure that the target group has easy access to opportunities for physical activity.

Benefits of physical activity

The benefits go well beyond preventing weight gain and improving both physical and mental well-being. Adequate physical-activity levels reduce by about 50% the risk of disorders such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, substantially reduce the risk of hypertension and some forms of cancer, and decrease stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. WHO’s most recent study of the global burden of disease estimated that almost 1 million deaths per year are attributable to insufficient physical activity in the WHO European Region alone.