Brazil’s free outdoor gyms

A bonus post tonight: this was meant to go up earlier in the week, but seems to have escaped to my drafts folder.

Mosaic Science has a thoughtful – and unusually well presented – article on the extraordinary success of free public gyms for improving public health in Brazil.

The article considers a lot of the well known barriers for improving the physical health in a developed country, especially in poorer areas:

“More than 10 per cent of Brazilians live on just two US dollars a day, despite the fact that the country ranks fifth in the world for its number of billionaires. The richest 1 per cent of the population has the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50 per cent.

“Unlike those who can afford expensive memberships of sports clubs and gyms, poor people have neither the time nor the money. Pedro’s own research has found that lack of money and feeling tired were the main reasons people gave for their lack of physical activity…

“…“When you look at total energy expenditure [the poor] do more, but it’s not their choice, it’s not voluntary,” says Pedro. Sometimes people need to walk to work because there is no other way, or their work may be physically demanding. On the other hand, he says, “rich people are exercising because they want to or they think it’s important”.”

The public policy experts that came together suggested an education campaign to convince people to exercise more. Fortunately, they’d invited an academic to the conversation who had a little more knowledge about the situation. The academic – Pedro – pointed out that:

“when asked if exercise is good for your health, 99 per cent of respondents said yes. Ninety per cent were aware that inactivity can increase the risk of high blood pressure and over 75 per cent knew that it can cause diabetes. “These findings suggested that knowledge is definitely not the main barrier against people exercising.””

“Rather than telling people they should be exercising, Pedro believes that any successful public health campaign will have to make it fun, enjoyable and convenient. “We don’t want something to be right or to tell people what they ought to do,” he says. Instead, exercise needs to be a choice that anyone can make.”

Excitingly, the article doesn’t just pose a problem, it shows that there are some possible solutions at hand:

Silveira’s idea was to bring physical instructors to the streets at times when people are free to do leisure activities – before and after work. Until then, the word ‘academias’ (‘gyms’) was associated with the very rich, who could afford memberships of private fitness centres. But Silveira’s idea would come to be known as the ‘academia da cidade’ – the gym of the city, of the people.

And that solution is working:

“the most frequent users of the service are women of low economic status of an older age, “exactly those who need it most”. Official figures show that those who normally do the most exercise are young, rich and male. Kids, often the children of the women in the class, play around the periphery or mimic their parents.

“…evaluation in Aracaju found that those who were currently participating in an academia were 13 times more likely to be reaching the recommended level of activity than those who’d never taken part, showing that the scheme gets people moving who aren’t physically active otherwise. According to the study’s findings, just hearing about the academias, never mind actually taking part, seems to increase a person’s likelihood of meeting recommended levels of physical activity by 60 per cent. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the effect is contagious – even if they’d never heard of the academias, people in an academia’s locale were twice as likely to be physically active as people who weren’t.”

Obviously I’ve liberally quoted from the article here, but I encourage you to head over to Mosaic Science to read the full thing – it’s a fascinating advance in health policy, and a great reminder for us policy makers to listen to those outside of our usual spheres.


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