In the run-up to the 8th European Week of Sport, EuropeActive had the pleasure to talk to Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, about the findings of the new Eurobarometer on Sport and Physical activity and the Commission’s initiatives to promote physical activity and healthy lifestyles. 

The 8th edition of the European Week of Sport, the European Commission’s flagship initiative promoting physical activity, is about to kick-off in Prague on 23 September, spreading the #BEACTIVE message across Europe. What are your hopes and expectations for this year’s edition and how will you measure success? 

The European Week of Sport is a real success story. And I am convinced that this launch in Prague this year, with the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU, will also be a great success.
 
Our motto is to ‘#BeActive!’ because our primary goal is to promote sports and physical activity across generations and to encourage them to have healthy and active lifestyles! 
 
We started with 7,000 events in 2015, which already was an incredible achievement for the very first year. And last year we counted 45,000 events, with over 11 million participants all over Europe. These figures speak for themselves.
 
They are the result of our partners’ and coordinators’ commitment to promote sport and physical activity, to make it fun and to show how to integrate it into our daily routines. EuropeActive is one of these partners, and we at the Commission count on you: you have been one of the most active partners of the European Week of Sport and its #BeActive Campaign, since the very beginning in 2015.
 
This year, the European Week of Sport will revolve around three topics: inclusion and equality, a healthy lifestyle, and youth. In this European Year of Youth, you can imagine how this dimension is close to my heart. And most of all: with the European Week of Sport and the initiatives for and with young leaders in sports, this is how we will promote, together, a real legacy for this EYY 2022.
 
Allow me to emphasize one last point. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on young people, in all aspects of their lives, including the practices of sport. According to the most recent Eurobarometer survey, young people stated that they engage in less frequent physical activity than before the pandemic. Also, the lockdowns and absence of social contact had a severe impact on their mental health and wellbeing, we know that as well. This was why we made youth reaching out to youth, and reminding them of their innate love for moving physically, one of our central topics this year.
 
Therefore, my ambition is a European Week of Sport that is inclusive, beating all participation records and reaching out to everyone across Europe, and especially young people, with concrete actions. I would like to see Europe’s youth active, physically and socially, as well as in civic life.
 

This year’s EWOS kick-off also coincides with the midway point of the ‘#Healthylifestyles4All’ initiative. Could you expand a little on what this initiative tries to achieve and how this fits in with the EU’s goals as they relate to health promotion and disease prevention?

We are all aware of how beneficial sport and physical activity are for our health. It is about much more than just our overall well-being. Physical activity is a true disease prevention tool and should be promoted as such. For instance, a report by the World Health Organisation from May this year showed that in Europe, three out of five people are overweight. With this report, the WHO went on to declare obesity a disease in its own right and said it had reached epidemic proportions. 

 
I launched the HealthyLifestyle4All initiative in Bled, Slovenia, during the European Week of Sport in September 2021 to promote healthy lifestyles across generations and social groups. I wanted to remove the obstacles many people experience in the practice of sport, and at the same time strengthen the link between sport, health and food in the public mind. 
 
These are the three pillars on which HealthyLifestyle4All is built. First, it is necessary to raise awareness on the benefits of doing sport. Second, it is important also to bring down the barriers that prevent people from being active. Finally, we have to promote cooperation across sectors, linking sport stakeholders with those active in other fields such as health and food.
 
We created an online Pledge Board in the context of HealthyLifestyle4All, inviting public authorities and civil society organisations to make commitments, or pledges, in favour of a healthy lifestyle. Together with my colleagues in charge of health, agriculture and environmental affairs, we have made pledges of our own. For instance, to integrate the concept of a healthy lifestyle in several sources of EU funding, to promote the benefits of physical activity on our health, to encourage physical activity in schools, to review the EU scheme for milk, fruit and vegetables and to inform about air quality. This is our duty at the European level: promoting a vision and creating the conditions for change, on the ground. 
 
I am happy to say that the Healthylifestyle4All online Pledge Board now counts more than 75 pledges. And I thank and congratulate EuropeActive for having joined this initiative with their own pledge, ‘The Healthy Hour’.
 
 
The newest idea will be presented on 23 September at the Opening of the European Week of Sport, when the HealthyLifeStyle4All Youth Ideas Labs, already launched in Lille last June during our EU Sport Forum, will invite young people to contribute to this initiative with fresh and innovative ideas. I am already looking forward to it but also to strengthen these Youth Labs as genuine sport ecosystems designed for our youth and with our youth.
 

The 5th edition of the Special Eurobarometer on sport and physical activity has recently come out and the headline figures indicate that inactivity levels remain high in Europe. What do you intend to do to improve this situation to get more people active and what evidence do you have that your intended course of action will be successful?

Indeed, the new Eurobarometer shows that six in ten Europeans never or seldom exercise or play sport. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, just over half of Europeans engaged less in or even stopped any kind of physical activity. This is quite worrying. 

 
The findings presented show that it is vitally important to continue and step up our efforts to promote physical activity, healthy lifestyles and universal values, from gender equality to inclusiveness, through sport. We have already launched some valuable initiatives to encourage people to be more active, and the European Week of Sport is definitely one of them! Working with Member States and partners from the European sport family, from athletes to coaches and grassroot clubs, and particularly for young people, we will yet again use the Week to encourage all Europeans to engage in physical activity. 
 
The Eurobarometer also confirms that a lack of motivation is only one of the reasons why people do not engage in sport.
 
This requires action on various fronts, notably in terms of positive communication, at different levels and by getting public authorities and the sport stakeholders to work together. A concerted effort from policy makers, sport and other civil society organisations that offer actual opportunities to get active, play sport or eat better will help citizens make this change possible. This is the spirit of #HealthyLifeStyle4All! 
 
In addition, the European Week of Sport is there to promote sport and physical activity far and wide. Thanks to the National Coordinating Bodies, that we support through Erasmus+ as well as the partners, we can mobilise many actors to reach out to citizens across Europe with our message to #BeActive.
 
Organisations who want to partner up around sport, inclusion and health can also send a project application in the annual calls from the Erasmus+ Programme. This year, 70 million euros are available to promote sport and healthy lifestyles, inclusion and equality and involve the young people through sport.
 
Most people exercise either in a non-organised setting outdoors, at home or in a fitness facility, such as a health club, confirming the trend of previous Eurobarometers. Do you think this evolution has been accelerated by COVID-19? Do these trends present opportunities for increasing the overall activity levels of Europeans and if so, what opportunities are you able to identify?
 
The practice of sport is increasingly characterised by a phenomenon of ‘de-institutionalisation’ whereby more people look to practice sport or physical activity outside the offer of established structures, such as sport clubs or federations.
 
In 2021, we, the Commission, published a mapping of innovative practices to promote sport outside of traditional structures to provide a wider understanding of how people’s sport practice is evolving and how the sport movement is adapting to this. 
 
There are new and attractive ways of practicing sport, and they are more closely linked to individuals’ personal environment (indoors and outdoors, at home, at school, at work, during commuting time or leisure time). At the same time, many established sport structures are innovating, with the aim to continue to attract people, especially young individuals, to the practice of sport.
 
The Commission also provides support for a ‘preparatory action’ on “Grassroots sports programmes and infrastructure innovation”. It is aimed at helping identify and test innovative ideas in order to promote physical activity through flexible, modern ways of practicing sport.
 
The Eurobarometer results show that women are less active than men overall. What do you think explains this difference, is this of concern in terms of health inequalities and is this something the Commission is focussing on and has solutions for?
 
Indeed, the Eurobarometer confirms that inequalities persist. At the same time, trend is another step to motivate all of us! Women are considerably less active than men in practising sport; people with lower education levels are less active than those with degrees. Moreover, the older a person gets, the less they are physically active. I don’t accept this reality.
 
There are many different reasons why, depending on the context and specific situation. Back in March 2022, I received a report from the high-level group on gender equality in sport, which I launched to tackle the main issues related to gender balance in sport. This report showed persistent inequalities between women and men in terms of participation in sport, but also when it comes to training, coaching or holding leadership positions.
 
Therefore, our response has to be wide-ranging, just as the causes of the problem are. 
 
First, I appointed a young female coach, Willemijn van Aggelen, to act as a role model and ambassador for the European Week of Sport 2022, to give a young woman visibility so she could inspire others. 
 
Second, I launched the BeEqual Award, which celebrates women and girls’ participation in sport, and in particular those who work hard to make gender equality a reality and set an inspiring example to others.
 
Third, for 2023, I have planned a European conference on gender equality in sport. This is because this is a problem that needs to be considered in its European dimension, to have impact at the local level afterwards. 
 
Fourth, we have also made sure that inclusion and diversity are one of the horizontal priorities of the Erasmus+ programme, and its Sport Actions include a priority to take action against discrimination and promote equality. 
 
Finally, just like today, here and now with you, I keep repeating the very important message that sport is for everybody, and certainly for girls and women. 
 

Sustainability has been a huge issue for the planet for decades and has now become a huge issue economically. Will economic pressure add impetus to the drive towards net zero and support the European Commission reaching its European Green Deal objectives, and what support and direction are you offering physical activity providers to contribute to these objectives?

Environment and climate action are key priorities. Delivering on our goals, for example the European Green Deal you mentioned, or also our initiative the New European Bauhaus, always requires the contribution of all parts of society. And that has to include the sport sector with its many local roots and important economic impact. 
 
Sport is about motivation, and athletes are role models to many. Let them inspire people to make greener choices. And let us start by greening the sport infrastructures.
 
This is what citizens, and especially young people, rightfully expect from us: environmental awareness, and climate action. It is a given for younger generations, which is wonderful because they hold us accountable. Small adjustments are no longer enough, we need to change the game. This calls for innovation, investment, and a commitment to build sport to be fit for a sustainable future.
 
At the European Commission, we have created an expert group on “Green sport” in line with the current Workplan for sport (2021-2024). This group prepares recommendations on how sport can make the green transition and how local and regional economies could profit from it.
 
Here again, the Erasmus+ programme is a key instrument for building knowledge, skills, and attitudes on sustainable development in the field of sport. Environment and the fight against global warming are a horizontal priority for the selection of projects, including in sport.
 
In addition, a new Pilot Project “People and Planet” will enable us to use the power of sport to make European citizens aware of the importance of sustainability and help them to understand how they can contribute to social cohesion and environmental protection. 
 
The pandemic is not yet officially over and it’s likely we will see further waves of COVID-19 variants for some years to come. How can we keep sport and fitness facilities open in light of this? Should they be declared essential services, given their importance to public health and the fact that exercise helps reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the body?
 
During the pandemic, people suffered from being deprived of regular sport and physical activities and of the benefits they bring to our health, but also to our social interactions, physical fitness and overall well-being. The majority of Europeans did less or even stopped practicing sport or physical activity.
 
However, people’s awareness about the role of sport and fitness for a healthy lifestyle has grown since the start of the pandemic. We have to keep the momentum.
 
We, the Commission facilitate meetings of experts from EU Member States to jointly delve into topical issues, such as the resilience of the sport sector during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Sharing working methods and data, as well as discussing the ways to cross the line together, are simple yet effective means of European cooperation. 
 
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Sep 27, 2022 By Pauline Joskin