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How governments and other authorities can better promote healthy lifestyles


Physical inactivity has remained unchanged at low levels globally for more than 20 years. A new study co-authored by Professor Lucia Reisch of Cambridge Judge suggests better coordination can boost implementation of healthier policies.

Profile portrait of a muscular male runner.
Lucia Reisch.
Professor Lucia Reisch

Despite plenty of urging by governments and other authorities to exercise more for health, physical activity globally has remained unchanged at low levels since 2001, and some research indicates that more than 7% of all deaths globally are attributable to physical inactivity.

A new study co-authored by Professor Lucia Reisch of Cambridge Judge Business School finds that cities have generally been more successful than school districts in implementing effective policies to encourage more physical activity – and it suggests ways that physical inactivity can be better addressed in the future.

How to translate physical activity policies into action

Based on a review of research conducted in the US, UK, New Zealand and Oman, the study in the European Journal of Public Health looks at various jurisdictions (federal, state, county, city and school district) and also analyses policies and their legal quality, the actors involved in promoting more health-enhancing physical activity, and implementation strategies including horizontal (such as between different government ministries) and vertical (such as incorporating core policy elements in one policy area into other parts of administration or government) integration.

“To the best of our knowledge, no review has analysed the implementation processes of public policies on physical activity promotion. The work presented in this paper fills this gap,” the authors say.

Says study co-author Lucia Reisch, Director of the El-Erian Institute of Behavioural Economics and Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School: “Like many policy areas designed to promote healthier lifestyles, the key to encouraging more physical activity is to develop effective implementation policies rather than simply outlining a well-known problem. That sounds very simple, but given resource and other constraints facing governments and other jurisdictions it’s easier said than done. Our study suggests ways that goals to promote physical activity may better be translated into action.”

How successful city programmes reflect long-term coordination

For example, some relatively successful city programmes to promote more physical activity such as in New York, San Antonio and Liverpool enjoyed a “long tradition of cross-sector collaboration” involving different policy areas such as transport, land use, recreational facilities, planning and architectural design.

“Coordination between different levels of government and agencies helped to achieve policy goals,” the study says. “Considering the obstacles within and between administrations, such as conflicting roles, lack of resources, personal differences and the lack of a spokesperson, it is remarkable how much coordination was reported in the studies. This was based on necessity because projects initiated by the administration could only be implemented in cooperation with different policy areas.”

School districts have limited resources to address both physical and academic pursuits

Yet the new study found that “the picture is different” for the school sector owing to lack of resources and time and, especially, “the intense focus on children’s academic performance are obstacles to the implementation of physical activity policies.”

Broadly, the study concludes that better structures should be adopted by school districts in order for cooperative implementation strategies to be formulated, while at the city level the goal should be to “stabilise” existing cooperation through political adoption of lasting legal frameworks or through allocated budgets to strengthen positive approaches over the long term. The authors also call for “continuous evaluation” of implementation in order to align action with policy goals in order to promote individual behaviour that enhances physical activity.

The study

The study in the European Journal of Public Health – entitled “What we know about the actual implementation process of public physical activity policies: results from a scoping review” – is co-authored by academics in Germany, Poland, Norway, Ireland and the UK.