The World Health Organisation has suggested that inactivity needs to be tackled at government level; including town planners, transport networks, as well as health and sports facilities. In the 1970’s Finland did just this. Finland’s health at that time was one of the worst recorded with unacceptably high level of coronary heart disease. The then government took extreme measures and began massive community based interventions. They made exercise easy and cheap. Local authorities were given the funds and responsibility for their own budgets. They encouraged competition between towns and villages – giving prizes for the most successful. They spent time with hard to reach groups, for example visiting pubs and clubs, and negotiated what they might be interested in. Schemes were rolled out across the country, and with persistence, they drew inactive people into activity; cycling; walking, Nordic walking, skiing and ball games were made accessible to all. They also encouraged daily active routines such as commuting to and from work, particularly for those who ‘didn’t have time to exercise’. This was supported by the creation of a hundred kilometres of new walking and cycle paths. Money was provided to keep them well-lit and maintained. Elderly people were given spikes to clamp on their shoes, so they could still go out in winter months. The pavements were kept clear of ice, and individuals who didn’t clear their patch of pavement were fined. Finland’s health was completely turned around to become one of the fittest populations of that time.
The UK today is very different demographically from Finland in the 70’s, but the Finnish policy proves mass change can be made with mass intervention.
Recent research supports the Finland template with evidence that societies who invest in encouraging their population to be physically active, reap financial and human rewards. For ever pound cities across the world invest in walking and cycling projects the returns average £13.
Initiatives in the UK such as exercise on prescription, bike hiring, and regular park runs are only utilised by a small percentage of the population. If we are to stop this epidemic of inactivity and obesity it is time for a national strategy with environmental interventions. Health promotion and education with current incentives are only touching the tip of the iceberg, when it is too little too late.