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Promoting physical activity in socially disadvantaged groups: It's everybody's business - also yours!

Social inclusion and the MOVE Project were prominent themes at the MOVE Congress 2013. With the overall theme looking at innovation, opportunities and changing approaches to tackling the physical inactivity epidemic, populations from socially disadvantaged groups are a key target audience.


A recent WHO policy report looking at physical activity promotion in socially disadvantaged groups clearly states that “Physical activity levels tend to be low in socially disadvantaged groups and it can be very difficult to promote in such population groups”. This was something that Kerry McDonald from StreetGames illustrated with hard facts from the UK. StreetGames’ research has shown that if you are from a poorer socioeconomic background, you are twice as likely to not play sport as someone from a more privileged background.


These are trends that have persisted over time. Like other consequences of living in socially disadvantaged communities, physical inactivity is one which is embedded and is likely to be passed down from generation to generation. Lack of role models, disposable income, accessible facilities and awareness of where, how and why to engage in physical activity all constitute barriers for taking up physical inactivity.


So it is clear that something needs to change. The Congress bought together over 12 experts to look at practical examples of engaging this ‘untapped’ market. While each speaker spoke about their own individual projects and programmes, there were some key themes which emerged which all organisations can adopt to be more inclusive and attract participants from a wider demographic.


“Flexibility is key,” as Giovanni Capelli from the University of Cassino and Southern Lazio and partner in the MOVE Project put it, highlighting one of the learning points from the MOVE Handbook. Special groups need tailor-made interventions. Using the standard methods to attract and promote sport and physical activity has shown to be ineffective. Organisations need to consider that they are working with people who tend to have less resources and motivation. So it is likely to take a much longer time to engage people from a socially disadvantaged background. It takes time to build a rapport with participants and win their trust, but working with peers has proven to be an effective way of doing so.


Secondly, opportunities need to be ‘customer led’. Wouter Vermeulen from Coca-Cola stated, “We need to rethink our traditional ways. Traditional sports and physical education practices can be part of the problem”.


StreetGames is a good example of this approach with its doorstep sport programme. The key to its success is having local ambassadors who consult with the targeted community to find out what they want to do and start from there. This ‘simple’ principle is the key to the success StreetGames has had as part of the MOVE Project.


And thirdly, good project management is important. Clear goals allow you to measure and evaluate your achievements and thereby understand what works and what doesn’t. It also allows the flexibility required to adapt to the different target groups.


Although these tips are a positive step to engaging socially disadvantaged groups, it is not enough to rely on specialist organisations such as Special Olympics, which was also presented at the Congress by Kai Troll, to do the work. It needs to be embedded into mainstream physical activity promotion.


Worryingly, Niamh Murphy from the WHO Europe Advisory Group on Physical Activity Promotion in Socially Disadvantaged Groups reported that in a recent report from the WHO which evaluated national policy documents from across Europe showed that 95% had national policies promoting physical activity, but less than half of these made a specific mention to programmes targeting socially disadvantaged groups.


For us to truly tackle barriers to the uptake of physical activity among socially disadvantaged groups, a combination of top down policy work and on-the-ground targeted programmes is the only way to achieve results. This is an area in need of attention and with a lot of potential for change, so is this something we can afford not to do?


By Katie Couchman and Hanne Müller, ISCA