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Activating India: A blueprint for a healthier, more active nation
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The Sports and Society Accelerator's series of issue briefs covers the future of 'active frameworks' in India.

A large body of research has shown that higher engagement in sports and physical activity (SAPA) translates to better physical and mental health for individuals, which enhances productivity and drives economic growth for nations. Additionally, SAPA fosters community cohesion and social well-being, improving overall quality of life. Promoting an active lifestyle aligns with sustainable development objectives by encouraging healthier living environments and supporting broader societal progress through reduced healthcare costs, increased social interaction, and improved public health. As we move towards 100 years of India in 2047, achieving the long-term goals of Viksit Bharat (Developed India) is intricately linked to our level of engagement in SAPA.

However, physical inactivity is growing in India, especially in urban areas. A study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and India Diabetes (INDIAB) (published in The Lancet) noted that 65% of urban Indians were inactive, compared to 50% in rural areas. The increasing incidence of sedentary lifestyles has contributed heavily to the burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and lifestyle-related health issues like diabetes and hypertension. According to the same ICMR-INDIAB study, approximately 100 million Indians are living with diabetes and over 300 million with hypertension, the bulk of them in urban locations. 

Thus, the need for a comprehensive approach to promote SAPA has never been more urgent.

What are active frameworks?

The issue requires coordinated, whole-of-system strategies and initiatives to tackle several interconnected challenges such as lifestyle changes, lack of awareness, lack of access to SAPA resources and facilities, prohibitive social norms (especially for women and girls), and socio-economic factors. Solutions must address policy changes, infrastructure improvements, building capacity among key stakeholders such as physical education (PE) teachers, urban planners, and policymakers, and fostering widespread engagement and behaviour change among Indians to increase their participation in SAPA. We identify four critical settings for implementing these changes: cities, workplaces, transit systems, and educational institutions - creating 'active frameworks'. By focusing on these areas, we can create an environment that encourages SAPA and supports the health and well-being of the population.

City-wide initiatives should promote urban spaces that include green areas, pedestrian zones, and cycling paths. These elements enhance aesthetic and recreational value and contribute significantly to public health by encouraging physical activity and reducing pollution. Employers, especially in urban locations, can play a pivotal role by fostering a culture that encourages SAPA in the daily routines of working professionals. This can be achieved through workplace wellness programs, incentives for active commuting, and providing on-site facilities such as gyms and showers. Educational institutions should integrate SAPA into their curriculum and campus life through incorporating and emphasizing a physical literacy approach including mandatory physical education and active classroom initiatives. These initiatives can instill lifelong SAPA habits in students and contribute to their overall well-being and academic performance. Developing public transportation options - e.g., bike-sharing systems, creating walkable transit hubs, and ensuring safe pathways for cyclists and pedestrians that support active commuting is essential. Such measures can help reduce traffic congestion, lower carbon emissions, and promote healthier lifestyles.

What does the series of issue briefs highlight?

These and other strategies are detailed in a series of issue briefs developed by the Sports and Society Accelerator (SSA). These briefs serve, we hope, as initial roadmaps for integrating SAPA into the everyday lives of Indians, highlighting the extensive benefits of these activities and providing localized, actionable strategies for various settings and environments.

The recommendations leverage the principles and global guidelines outlined in the Global Action Plan on Physical Activity (GAPPA) by the World Health Organization (WHO) and adapt these to meet India's unique socio-cultural and infrastructural challenges. For instance, they advocate for the integration of culturally significant activities like yoga and classical Indian dance into educational and community SAPA programs, recognizing their particular appeal for promoting SAPA among girls and women. Addressing the challenges of dense urban populations and limited space, the briefs recommend the creation of multi-use public spaces that facilitate walking, cycling, and communal gatherings, along with innovative solutions like rooftop sports facilities. They also suggest infrastructure adaptations to combat environmental challenges such as air pollution, heavy rainfall, and heatwaves, including covered walkways and cycling paths, and the installation of outdoor shelters that provide rest and recharge points for commuters. Together, these tailored strategies aim to foster a blueprint for multisectoral collaboration, driving forward a vision for a healthier, more active society.

To effectively translate our insights into tangible outcomes, it is crucial to mobilize a broad spectrum of stakeholders and forge robust partnerships across various sectors. This approach involves policymakers, urban planners, employers, educational bodies, and civil society organizations, among others, each playing a pivotal role in reshaping India’s SAPA landscapes.

These briefs offer an effective launching pad to orchestrate key initiatives such as convenings, workshops, and policy dialogues that focus on embedding SAPA within India. Future steps will include rallying SAPA advocates who can influence community norms and behaviors and harnessing the collective power of the sports-for-society ecosystem to enhance the visibility and impact of these initiatives. By engaging a diverse network of stakeholders, we aim to cultivate a discourse that champions the integration of SAPA into daily life.

Our vision extends beyond merely increasing engagement in SAPA; it envisions transformative changes to the environments where people live, work, and play. By collaboratively advancing these initiatives, we aim to turn urban centers, workplaces, transit systems, and schools and colleges into vibrant hubs of health and SAPA. This integrated approach promises to both elevate public health and forge a path toward a more dynamic, healthier future for all Indians. Through these concerted efforts, we can realize the potential of a fully active India, where supportive environments sustain healthy lifestyles for everyone.

We invite you to have a look at the issue briefs and share your thoughts and comments with us at [email protected].
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The authors work at the Sports and Society Accelerator. Kanishka Bhattacharya is the Head of Research, and Mridul Kataria is the Chief of Staff.

About SSA: The Sports and Society Accelerator is a public-spirited, independent, not-for-profit organization working to shape the world around us through sports and physical activity (SAPA). Its focus is on actionable policy and regulatory guidance and recommendations, data-led research, proofs of concept, projects and programmes, and assistance and advisory services to stakeholders and partners.

Image credits: Canva/Monkey Business Images

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