Exercise without a sporting chance

Sport England is to launch an ad blitz aimed at getting the nation active. But while interest in sport has soared, fewer people are actually taking part – so can the body get us physical? Fat chance, says David Benady

Twenty million people across the UK are to be targeted with a series of promotional campaigns persuading them to eat more healthily and to get fit.

They will be encouraged to walk up stairs rather than taking the lift, to cycle and walk to work or school, to cut down on fatty and sugary foods and to take half an hour’s “moderate” exercise five times a week.

Sport England, the lottery-funded sports body, last week declared that it was drawing up a brief for a “multi-million pound” advertising campaign to promote physical activity. It also announced it would soon start the search for an agency (MW last week) to work on the campaign.

Sport England head of marketing Nick Wake believes public health campaigns can bring about changes in social behaviour in the same way that anti-drink driving ads have. “We want to change people’s attitudes and behaviour, but there needs to be a sustainable effect to meet longer-term government targets,” he says.

It is understood that the news, revealed in Marketing Week, raised eyebrows across Whitehall. There, it seems, a fitness turf war is under way, as different departments are determined to have their own say on the health issue. The Government has established the Activity Co-ordination Team (ACT) to oversee its sports drive. It is jointly chaired by sports minister Dick Caborn and public health minister Melanie Johnson, and also brings together the Departments of Transport and Health, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and UK sports bodies.

ACT will report next spring with suggestions on how to get people to be active. There is also a proposed anti-obesity campaign by the Department of Health (MW October 16), and a plethora of helpful suggestions being put forward by MPs. Last week, Barry Gardiner MP told the Health Select Committee that children should stay at school until 6pm to enable them to do two hours’ sport a day.

Some fear that all these different messages could diffuse the overall effect. As one insider says: “If all these different initiatives could operate under one umbrella theme and pool resources, we could do something significant.”

Brand owners, too, have spent hundreds of millions of pounds over the past 20 years promoting sport: sponsorships, product endorsements by sports stars and providing funds for sports facilities. It is ironic that while sport has become a national obsession, people’s lifestyles are becoming less healthy. Sports clothes dominate popular fashion, sports stars are the new celebrities and BSkyB has helped to make football more popular than ever. Yet obesity has risen dramatically and levels of physical activity have declined significantly.

In 1980, six per cent of men and eight per cent of women in the UK were obese. By 2000, the figures had increased to 21 per cent and 21.4 per cent, according to the Royal College of Physicians. Levels of inactivity rose substantially between 1994 and 1998, particularly among women. While in 1994, 43 per cent of women took part in medium levels of physical activity, this declined to 34 per cent in 1998. For men, it declined from 33 per cent to 28 per cent (source: 1998 Health Survey for England).

Sport has become something to watch and to wear, not an activity to take part in. The number of sports centres has rocketed since the Eighties, but this has led to a sports apartheid where only the better-off can afford to take part in such activity. No wonder just a third of the population takes enough exercise.

One advertising source says: “There has been so much publicity in the past ten years about health, jogging, the London Marathon and so on. Health could not have been pushed harder than it has been over the past decade.

“Advertising can work if it promotes a specific outcome, such as getting people to wear seatbelts. But it is hard to see how a general physical activity campaign could persuade those who have resisted the messages until now to take part.”

The purveyors of fatty, sugary and salty foods have invested heavily in sports facilities – McDonald’s and Pepsi are “community” sponsors of the Football Association and McDonald’s and Coca-Cola have poured money into youth football clubs. Yet all this is failing to help increase physical activity. Cadbury has run its Get Active scheme, which offered to supply school equipment in exchange for tokens obtained by buying the company’s confectionery products. Last week, it looked as if Cadbury had decided to bury the voucher component of the scheme, after it was panned in the national press for encouraging children to eat more sweets while pretending to promote health.

In “Game Plan: a strategy for delivering the Government’s sport and physical activity objectives”, published in December 2002 by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Downing Street Strategy Unit, the cost of physical inactivity in the UK is put at £2bn a year. This also represents at least 54,000 lives lost prematurely.

Game Plan sets the target of getting 70 per cent of the population reasonably active – exercising for half an hour five times a week – by 2020. At present, only about 30 per cent of the English reach this level. The target sounds eminently missable – it means 100,000 inactive people will have to be converted to physical activity every month for the next 17 years; some 3,500 people every single day. Sport England says this target is “perhaps unobtainable” in its response to Game Plan and says that out of the £1,135 spent per head each year on health, only £23 is spent on sport.

The 70 per cent figure is based on the assumption that there is a 30 per cent core of couch potatoes who are not even worth trying to persuade to get healthy. By concentrating on the 40 per cent of the population who are more likely to respond, resources can be concentrated.

But even within that 40 per cent, there is a huge segmentation task. One of the major groups will be teenagers, most of whom give up sport the moment they leave school. Others are women and older people.

All the attempts over the past 20 years to encourage healthy lifestyles have accompanied a worrying rise in poor diet and lack of activity among the majority of the population. It is difficult to envisage what kind of strategy the Government could come up with to reverse that trend.

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