Comparing Fitness Facts: United States vs. Europe
By Jennifer Sisk
Although an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and fast food have spread beyond just the United States to other Westernized countries, rates of obesity, overweight, and physical inactivity have not yet risen accordingly in some countries. European researchers have conducted large population-based lifestyle surveys that indicate that while some European countries do have lower overall rates of exercise, other countries, such as Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and Finland, have higher overall rates of exercise.
More than 30% of adults in the United States are overweight, compared with a low 11% in Finland and 10% in Denmark. In Finland, roughly 66% of adults reported engaging in moderate to vigorous leisure-time physical activity for at least three hours per week. In contrast, recent health surveys in the United States indicated that approximately 60% of adults never participated in any type of vigorous leisure-time physical activity.
In Denmark, while children and adolescents spend approximately 90 minutes per day on television and electronic games, participation in sports activities is still increasing, with 80% or more of boys and girls participating. In the United States, clinical studies reported that most American children watch television and/or play computer/video games for more than four hours per day.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States, less than 39% of children participate in organized physical activity. Why is there such a substantial difference? A national governmental act in Denmark declared that use of all facilities are free of charge to organized sports clubs. And ask any soccer mom or football dad in the United States just how much participation in organized sports costs.
In Finland, physical education has been compulsory in schools for more than a century. Physical education is almost nonexistent in American public schools.
Environmental and lifestyle differences in Finland and other European countries contribute to the higher rate of physical activity. Bicycling and walking as transportation are still common in many European countries, and a large network of trails and bicycle lanes can be found in many cities.
In general, Europeans work less and have more vacation time than stressed-out corporate Americans. European governmental bodies are more involved in promoting physical activity incentives. For Americans, while the individual is ultimately personally responsible for his or her own weight loss or gain, overall societal health measures, like the rising rates of obesity and inactivity, are the responsibility of our public officials.
I’d like to see a return to mandatory, but fun, physical education for children and more financial assistance or incentives for community physical fitness programs.
— Jennifer Sisk is a certified wellness educator/consultant with the American College of Wellness and a certified fitness instructor with the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America. She can be reached at jennifersisk~usa.net.