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Physical activity needs to be humanized before it is globalized
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Propagation of a generic view that people world over need to be encouraged to “move” to combat sedentary behavior marginalizes the living realities of those like refugees, agricultural workers and nomadic tribes who are compelled to move to access basic life necessities.
This article was submitted as part of our call for articles on participatory approaches in sport for development. For more information and to find out how to submit, read the call for articles.

In response to a growing recognition worldwide of the importance of promoting physical activity to combat the effects of changing lifestyles and sedentary behavior, the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2018, launched the Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030. Alongside this, initiatives like the Global Observatory for Physical Activity established in 2012 and the MOVE Congress held since 2009 promote research and programs about physical activity participation among all age-groups. Inactivity is now considered, and treated, as a ‘silent pandemic’ that can cause millions of deaths because of its role in the onset of non-communicable diseases and mental health illness. While this global effort is driven by commendable intentions and has the potential to significantly enhance both health and economic outcomes, one must acknowledge that the context of sedentary behavior varies considerably across communities and nations.

The Global Action Plan document defines physical activity as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscle that requires energy expenditure. This might give the impression that activity is primarily a matter of choice or routine. However, in reality, energy expenditure is often economically and socio-culturally mediated based on living circumstances. While the document recognizes that utilitarian activity may not always provide mental and social benefits, its emphasis on the universal benefits of ‘all forms’ of physical activity fails to capture the complexities. In low and lower-middle income countries, individuals and communities, constrained by structural barriers and historical vulnerabilities, are compelled to 'move' for survival or their livelihood, even at the risk of harm, ill-health, and lifelong debility. 

Let us consider a few examples. The two major conflicts currently - the Russo-Ukrainian War and the 2023 Israel-Hamas War have displaced millions of people, forcing them to ‘move’ (evacuate) at short notice to protect themselves and their families. Recently, a report threw light upon how plantation workers at Bangladesh struggled with severe heat and drought during work – an ironic scenario where they had to stay off physical activity to preserve their health. Climate change is similarly impacting millions of agricultural and construction workers in India where they comprise more than 50% of total rural male labor force.  World over, UNCIEF has noted a rise child labor (with the COVID-19 pandemic having put an additional 9 million children at risk), engaged in activities that interfere with schooling and harm their physical, mental, social and/or moral development. The push for modern active lifestyles based on standardized ideas of recreation has challenged indigenous cultures who prefer not to compartmentalize work and leisure since active practices such as foraging forests and harvest festival celebrations already a part of their ‘way of life’. 

These examples point to the fact that discussions on physical activity must accommodate alternate epistemologies. It is only when one has the choice “not to move” can the notion that one “ought to move” become meaningful. Throughout history, conflict and inequality have been characterized by a contest for leisure, demonstrating that a quest for power has essentially been a quest to control human movement, whether for building pyramids, raising children, or working at plantations and factories. Even today, millions of workers have a limited say in determining the labor-leisure trade-offs and women struggle with an unequal burden of domestic duties. Hence, assuming a ‘post-developed’ world normatively based on sedentary behavior is naive, as it overlooks these historical truths.

Promoting physical activity is still significant, and many individuals involved in physically intensive livelihoods may choose it willingly. However, addressing the dichotomy between choice and compulsion cannot be avoided. How can physical activity advocacy also apply to a child tasked with farm work after school or a plantation worker enduring long hours picking tea leaves or plucking coffee berries under the scorching sun? What about a construction worker engaged in strenuous labor or a community nurse walking miles to vaccinate children? Many such activities stem from generational impoverishment, colonial legacies, or entrenched social inequalities.

If a call to establish active societies must avoid reinforcing structural barriers, it must transcend reductionist perspectives. Societies need to be just before they are active. Economies need to be realigned to ensure universal access to peace, leisure and a respect for diverse recreational perspectives. Equal opportunities for cultural recognition, access to education and dignified livelihood need to be available to all communities. One needs to strive for a world where the choice to move, in ways that one prefers, is firstly an essential feature of life. Of course, this significantly broadens the mandate of global advocacy for physical activity, but it certainly makes it more meaningful. 


About the author

Shreyas Rao is a learning design consultant, driven by a mission to make information and learning more accessible for individuals in grassroot sports. He currently works with sport-for-development organizations, sports federations, educational institutions and elite sport academies on aspects such as curriculum design, learning management, teacher/coach development programmes and digital marketing.

Original photo by Ahmed Akacha

Authors

Learning Design Consultant (Freelance)
Bengaluru, India

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