The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has firmed up its support for the development of physical activity through far-reaching amendments in its international charter of physical education and sport, recognizing physical activity as a fundamental human right.
Unesco, which is the United Nations' lead agency for sport and physical education, describes the charter as a reference document for education and sports organizations as well as their sponsors. It establishes the practice of physical education and sports as a fundamental right for all, and sets standards around principles such as gender equality and integrity. As part of the proposed amendments, the concept of physical activity has been introduced throughout the charter, making it a fundamental right as well. The revision thus broadens the charter's scope beyond physical education and sport, to include wider physical activities that are known to have health benefits.
The changes are all the more significant since the charter dates back to 1978 and has only been altered once, in 1991. They may be particularly impactful in developing countries where awareness of the importance of physical activity and initiatives such as Designed to Move may not be as strong as in other countries – whereas they are struggling with many of the same health issues.
A final draft of the revised charter was approved a few days ago at a meeting of Unesco's executive board, which represents 58 countries and meets twice per year. The executive board approved the document with the exception of one clause unrelated to physical activity. The revised charter will thus be submitted to Unesco's general conference, taking place in November in Paris.
The World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI) took an active part in the process leading up to the review. The federation is part of the permanent consultative council of Unesco's Intergovernmental Committee for Physical Education and Sport (CIGEPS). It helped finalize the draft of the revised charter discussed by CIGEPS at an extraordinary session in Lausanne in January. CIGEPS comprises 18 elected member states as well as a the permanent consultative council of which the WFGSI is a member, along with many sports organizations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Sport Accord and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Unesco has already reaffirmed its commitment to physical activity through the Declaration of Berlin, which was adopted at the World Conference of Sports Ministers in the German capital in 2013. With both the declaration and the revised charter nearly in place, the organization is moving towards implementation. It is particularly relying on the global sports industry to provide support in measuring and promoting physical activity programs and policies.
As part of these efforts, CIGEPS has set up an ad-hoc working group that is meant to elaborate indicators and benchmarks to monitor the implementation of the Declaration of Berlin. Furthermore, CIGEPS wants to organize another World Conference of Sports Ministers in May or June 2017, to measure the impact of its initiatives.
The intensified action at Unesco could be regarded as part of a wider drive to support physical activity, after a high-level meeting at the United Nations in 2011 regarding the spread of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). These diseases were formally recognized as a major threat to economies and societies, and it was acknowledged that physical activity was an efficient way to help prevent them. It was only the second time that a medical issue was discussed at such a high-level UN meeting.
The nine global targets set out in a subsequent Global NCD Action Plan 2013-2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO) included a 10 percent relative reduction in the prevalence of insufficient physical activity by 2025. The top target is to reduce by 25 percent the overall mortality from cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, or chronic respiratory diseases.
An assessment by the WHO in 2013 found that 80 percent of countries had policies in place to address physical inactivity but only 56 percent of them were operational. Only 8 percent made use of tax incentives to promote physical activities, including tax exemptions or rebates on sports equipment, fitness programs or gym memberships – and higher taxation on items that favor inactivity, such as home entertainment equipment.
The WFSGI describes the UN high-level meeting as a breakthrough that provided impetus for other organizations to take action on physical activity. Commitment from Unesco means that physical activity is supported from a variety of perspectives – with the WHO and Unesco covering the crucial angles of health and education, among others.
The near-global impetus to stimulate physical activity is shown by some of the latest national policies. At a meeting of the WFSGI's physical activity committee in January, members heard about initiatives by the Indian government, for example. While participation is growing in urban sports such as running and fitness, the government is developing physical activity programs for children integrating traditional sports and games played in rural India.
The WFSGI has an obvious interest in stimulating physical activity and many members have set up their own initiatives or are supporting others. Their interests and efforts were echoed at the forum on physical activity held at Ispo Munich earlier this year. The participants agreed that the efforts should focus on children, at a time when they are developing physical activity habits.
Some of the speakers particularly pointed to the importance of stimulating physical activity among girls. For the time being, all countries other than Finland have a lower level of sports activity among girls than boys. To help turn the tide, Mandy Ayres, senior director of global community impact for Europe at Nike, advocated designing of specific sports products for girls.
The impact of such investments is hard to measure so far, while many agree that efficient measurements help to spur action. An important improvement is that the WHO has started researching physical activity among youngsters. While studies previously measured it from the age of 15, the WHO's latest Global Status Report on NCDs tracks physical activity from the age of eleven. In a few years' time, the industry could thus benefit from highly relevant measures on the global development of physical activity among young people.
While applauding the widened scope of the research, the WFSGI and other organizations are calling for studies that would measure activity from birth. They emphasize that, if a child is inactive until the age of 12, there's only a small chance that he or she will be physically active as an adult. The federation says that, for the time being, Japan is the only country where physical activity is measured from birth.
Another of the WFSGI's main objectives around physical activity is to develop regional strategies – to make sure that investments trickle down to all regions, through programs that are adjusted to regional requirements and practices.