Sport et Citoyenneté

It is often particularly complex to draw a portrait of Europeans trends. The comparison exercise can turn out tricky and, particularly when digging into the habits of Europeans and their tendency to be physical active. Nonetheless, the Eurobarometer, the WHO’s Global Recommendations for Physical Activity for Health and national figures, recently summed up in country specific factsheets on HEPA, facilitate the search for a common denominator.

2014-05-29 - Yoann Jezequel - Think tank sport - 010

According to the last Eurobarometer survey[1], 42% of Europeans never exercise or play sport. This percentage has increased by three points since the 2009 survey (from 39% to 42%). A similar proportion exercise or play sport at least once a week (41%, an increase of one percentage point from the previous survey).

48% engage in other physical activity, for recreational or non-sport-related reasons, such as cycling from one place to another, dancing or gardening at least once a week, while 30% never do this kind of activity at all.

Although one can notice large disparities between countries when it comes to the frequency and level of engagement in sport and other physical activity, general trends emerge throughout Europe.


Persistent inequalities

In almost all countries, boys are more active than girls, and men are more active than women: 45% of men exercise at least once a week, compared with 37% of women. In addition, 37% of men and 47% of women state that they never exercise or play sports[2].

Another alarming issue stands in the level of inactivity of younger children. Childhood up to adolescence represents a particularly crucial phase in the development of movement skills. Member States should devote a more specific focus on both these targets. Figures in each country indeed translate the trend that prevalence of adolescents reaching the recommended physical activity levels decreases through adolescence[3]. The situation is even more worrying for adolescent girls.

Husky sled in Lapland, Finland, under the sun...
Husky sled in Lapland, Finland, under the sun…

Some geographical differences

Citizens from Nordic countries, with Sweden on the top of the list with only 9% of respondents who never exercise or play sports, were most likely to exercise or play sports. Denmark and Finland follow with 14% and 15%, respectively. At the other extremity, Romania and Portugal both have 60% or more of their populations who never exercise, whilst Malta and Bulgaria report 75% and 78%, respectively, of their populations who do not exercise or play sports at least once a week!

While Austria and Germany always remain close to the leading nations, Mediterranean countries stand as laggards, showing rather alarming rates of inactive populations. The UK stands slightly below the EU average (42%), with about 35% of respondents who never exercise or play sports. Finally the eastern/central European nations, generally stand in the EU average as well. The same pattern applies with the definition of non-organized physical activity with the exception of the Netherlands, that sneaks in on the podium instead of Finland[4].

Multi-sectoral policies on HEPA

How could we explain these differences? EU factsheets on HEPA provide interesting insights on country specific actions undertaken to promote health-enhancing physical activity[1].

By looking at Nordic countries and some other countries, namely Germany, Austria or the Netherlands, a common approach stands out: Sport policies are part of a national strategy. A so-called multi-sectoral cooperation in HEPA exists, and is strong and wide reaching[2]. Governments are committed to attach sport initiatives to other fields such as culture, environment, health and prevention, children, equality, integration and social affairs, and education. Sport is embedded in the everyday lifestyles of citizens. The approach could even be extended to a sport for all approach. These countries emphasize on informal sports and activity, with a special commitment to diversity in sports, including the development of sports for people with disabilities and for socially vulnerable groups, as well as gender-equitable sports[3]. Those partnerships are translated by a multi-level governance collaboration system between municipalities, local organizations, and the private sector. With some less-intensive level of implication, Germany[4], Austria[5] and the Netherlands[6] stand in line with such an approach, and further include an urban planning (car free zone and walkability for instance[7]).

The lack of national coordination could be one of the explanations of the difficulties of Mediterranean countries to meet the expectations in terms of physical activity. Simply speaking physical activity is not encompassed in the national schemes and policies, or at least not in a transversal manner. For instance, Italy is lacking a comprehensive national sport policy that promotes and coordinates sport action across the entire country[8]. No Ministry of sport exists in Italy, and the organisation of sports falls under the competence of the Ministry of Arts and Culture. Greece does not have an established national health monitoring and surveillance system that includes population-based measures of physical activity, nor does it have national recommendations on physical activity and health[9]. Despite the relevance and necessity to promote active transports, Portugal does not have National or subnational schemes promoting active travel to school and/or workplace[10].

speed beach
speed beach

When moving further East in Europe, Central/Eastern countries tend to perform better than southern EU Member States, although they remain in the continental average. The most recurrent observation is the absence of national recommendation on physical activity. Slovakia[11], Romania[12], Bulgaria[13], Poland[14] or even the Czech Republic[15] have not established national guidelines which proposes solution for active living. In addition, active transport appears often overlooked for a majority of those countries. One should still note that these countries are expected to implement adapted schemes in a near future.



Those observations have to be taken into consideration carefully because they illustrate general trends. Nonetheless, a series of EU Member States have clearly succeeded to integrate physical activity as part of citizens’ lifestyle through national multi-sectoral policies on HEPA. Their model is to replicate in other Member States. Reforms and time are indisputably needed to tackle sedentary lifestyles, but change is indispensible, especially since active living eventually constitutes an element of competitiveness[16].


Sport and Lifestyle, the 33th journal of the Think tank Sport and Citizenship

















[1] Special Eurobarometer 412, Sport and Physical Activity, March 2014

[2] Special Eurobarometer 412, Sport and Physical Activity, March 2014












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