During recent decades, there has been a progressive decline in the level of physical activity in people's daily lives in developed countries. For a majority of people, little physical effort is involved any more in their work, domestic chores, transportation and leisure. Whilst specific health risks differ between countries and regions, the fact remains that physical inactivity is a major risk factor for most common non-communicable diseases and physical activity can counteract many of the ill effects of inactivity.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that, with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, chronic diseases are now the leading causes of death in the world. The WHO cites four non-communicable diseases that make the largest contribution to mortality in low- and middle-income countries, namely: cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, and diabetes.

How can sport help to reach specific health objectives through these approaches?

Defining health

One of the most widely-used definitions of health is that of the WHO, which defines health as: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This definition goes well beyond a condition of physical health but includes mental health and general well-being.

Physical activity and health

Sport and physical activity has long been used as a tool to improve mental, physical and social well-being.

Physical inactivity is a major risk factor associated with a large number of lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. Sport projects that specifically focus on health outcomes generally emphasise:

  • The promotion of healthy lifestyle choices among children and young people as well as adults to combat inactivity;
  • The use of sport as a tool to raise awareness on communicable diseases in developing countries, for example, through district or national health campaigns supported by athletes and sports competitions;
  • The use of sport as a didactical tool to communicate vital health-related information to ‘at risk’ groups;
  • The use of sport to mobilise hard-to-reach groups as part of large-scale health campaigns, including for example, communities with low population density;
  • Sport is considered to contribute to achieving mental health objectives, including addressing depression and stress-related disorders.

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