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For one in three families physical activity is something they don’t give enough importance


The "2018 AOK Family Study" shows an increasing trend towards far too less physical activity in families. "Regarding sports and healthy eating habits among children and youngsters, it is the communities which play a key", says Dr. Gerd Landsberg, Managing Director of DStGB, the German Association of Towns and Municipalities. Both an intelligent traffic and road planning as well as a good sports infrastructure can make a significant contribution to promoting physical activity.

In many German families, exercise often comes short. These were the findings of the "2018 AOK Family Study", conducted by the IGES Institute by surveying approximately 5,000 mothers and fathers on behalf of the AOK Bundesverband (Federal Association of AOK, a national health insurance company) and published in July 2018. Although 45 per cent of the parents interviewed are physically active together with their children every day, sports as such is no issue during their leisure time. One reason could be the time pressure of parents which 40 per cent of the persons interviewed considered to be the strongest factor with a negative impact. Thus, it is not surprising that only 28 per cent of the parents manage to do sports and fitness training. Although the high time factor has decreased slightly by 6 per cent compared to the last survey four years ago, relationship problems have increased to the same extent. By now, one in five (20 per cent) is directly affected whereas it was only 14 per cent in 2014.

Nevertheless, the different stress factors do not seem to have a negative impact on the well-being of the parents as 76 per cent of them perceive their health status as very good or good (2014: 69 per cent). However, there is another visible problem among the parents: according to the findings of the study, 36 per cent of them are overweight, 22 per cent obese. Among fathers, it is even 72 per cent in one of the two categories. Jens Martin Hoyer, Deputy Chairman of the AOK Association, is especially concerned and says: "More and more people of our society are becoming overweight and are suffering from physical inactivity. Albeit it is pleasing to see the stress factors have decreased, this result is a clear warning signal."

Prof. Dr. Jutta Mata from the Chair for Health Psychology at the University of Mannheim has provided scientific support while the study was performed. It is only 10 per cent of the children who are as active as recommended by the World Health Organization. These figures are, however, lower than compared with other representative surveys in Germany, but indeed reflect the same trend: the physical activity of children in Germany is, in general, very low." In this context, the increasing media consumption plays an important part, a fact which Mata notes with concern. 59 per cent of the children between 4 and 6 years of age use the new media longer than recommended, during weekends it is even 84 per cent. The situation appears to be similar for the children of 7 to 11 years. " Thus, it would be easiest to increase the physical activity by becoming more active in one's day-to-day life. As the Family Study shows, time is the most limited resource. In other words, if I want to have more time for a new activity or sports, I will have to do without something else. However, to take the right decision can be very difficult. But, if I integrate more physical activity into my daily activities, this could be a low-threshold and at the same time a sustainable opportunity to become physically more active.”

In addition, the AOK Family Study focuses on the question to what extent the municipal infrastructure affects the physical activity of families. According to the findings of interviews held with parents, it showed that children who live in an attractive environment usually practise sports for an average period of 3.8 days per week which comes to 27 per cent more than those children who live in less favourable conditions (3.0 days per week). The situation appears to be similar with regard to joint cycling. The more user-friendly and safe cycle paths are available, the more leisure time will German families spend jointly on their bikes. In concrete figures this means: If good cycle paths are available, parents and children ride their bikes for an average period of 1.6 days per week, whereas on the contrary, if they don’t exist, only for an average period of 0.9 days. This corresponds to a 77 per cent increase. Although most of the families interviewed have an activity-friendly environment at their disposal, more than 80 per cent of them would like to see even more improvements with regard to playgrounds, parks, sports facilities and cycle paths.

In view of the aforementioned findings, AOK Chairman Hoyer demonstrates the particular commitment of his health insurance company to prevention. We have a special responsibility towards our 28 million insured. Thanks to our regional focus and close proximity compared to other health insurance companies we have considerably more flexible design opportunities on site.“ However, the results also showed the legal limitations of contribution-financed insurance companies. „We as AOK can make a contribution by giving information to people, to motivate and guide them as well as providing them – together with other partners - with quality focused offerings which help to promote sporting activities. In this, Hoyer finds a key ally in towns and municipalities: "All of us, the German Association of Towns and Municipalities agree that an attractive design of open spaces could be an important aspect to promote physical activity. While doing so, we give a clear signal in line with the law on prevention which clearly calls for cooperation between health insurance companies and the municipalities.“

In November last year, this was already pointed out by the German Association of Towns and Municipalities (German abbreviation DStGB) who have recently published a position paper to this effect. Managing Director of DStGB Dr. Gerd Landsberg, uses the results of the AOK Family Study to reaffirm his commitment. "The number of children and youngsters who get far too little exercise or have unhealthy and inadequate eating habits is increasing dramatically. This is dangerous for the personal development of each child affected and is becoming an increasing problem for the entire society. The municipalities have many possibilities and approaches to effectively counteract this development. It starts with the diet in kindergartens and school canteens and should be continued and also consistently promoted, for instance, in sports clubs. The healthy concept also includes a reasonable traffic and road design which, for instance, takes into account that small children can reach their schools either on foot or by bike, for example on continuous cycle paths. In addition, the towns and municipalities could also support the children’s natural need for activity through the appropriate design of public spaces. The offerings in local green areas and public parks could motivate "couch potatoes“ as much as public activity trails to become physically active. However, attention should be paid to good accessibility and the provision of offers which allow the children to exercise jointly with their parents.

‫Apart from the good sports infrastructure – which also includes well-thought-out regular swimming lessons and good public swimming pools – it is, however, indispensable to increase the responsibility of parents. Both education and feeding their children the right diet is primarily the responsibility of the parents and not of the government. Thus, we should not always talk about additional parental rights, such as their additional involvement in the management of day care centres, but also focus on their duties. Common family meals are becoming less frequent, because of the different day structure and schedules of children and par. ents.

Hence, it is important that both the municipalities, day care centres and schools tackle this topic by teaching, promoting and setting an example of healthy dietary practices and physical activity. However, it is the parents' responsibility to integrate these suggestions into the daily family life because children need examples and someone to show them the right direction. It starts with a healthy and balanced diet, followed by going shopping on foot or by bike up to joining sports events together. Under the motto "municipality in motion" the towns and municipalities on site should thus develop concepts together with the parents, clubs, schools and kindergartens, which focus on how to promote independent exercise and healthy diets for children and youngsters. Thus, the concept of day care centres that are focused on movement and exercise should be established on a nationwide basis as well as implementing integrating sports and movement as a firm component of the entire school day, for instance through movement during school lessons, in the learning and living spaces, active breaks and a movement-friendly design of school yards to encourage children to become physically active. Such overall concepts require the support of the Federal Länder which have to grant the relevant financial support focusing on sustainable club sponsorship and the consistent expansion of sports installations. Finally, it should not be overlooked that at the same time the relevant offers represent important location factors in the competition existing between the different municipalities.

In order to reach the target group in question (parents, children, public politics) media partnerships with the relevant newspapers and magazines as well as the local radio stations are highly desirable. That is why the DStGB clearly supports the global action days which, at least in part, are successfully implemented with the support of health insurance companies. For example, the "Children’s Activity Day" could thus contribute to raise public awareness and at the same time provide a useful opportunity to present local offerings which might help to attract, for instance, new members for the local clubs or the volunteer fire department. It must, however, be recognised that promoting sports and healthy eating habits will be a continuous process due to the fact that today's "digital" youth is mainly focused on smartphones and social networks which, in consequence, leads to increasingly less exercise whereas in former times children and youngsters just went outside, played and somehow automatically became physically active. However, this time will not come back. Hence it is of utmost importance, to give a warning against the possible negative effects of physical inactivity while at the same time the healthy options should be promoted.  In addition, the serious health and social effects and the resulting damages of too little exercise, such as overweight, must hence be made transparent. Nevertheless, today's youth high affinity towards the digital world could also be profitable if the focus is on promoting the development of creative programs which support digital offerings of realistic movement formats.

In summary, we must overcome the social challenges together to help our children to grow up healthy and strengthen their development."

Photo: AOK


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