To promote physical activity, municipalities have concentrated on offering more sports and exercise facilities as well as making them more versatile. Despite these measures, Finns continue to exercise too little from a health perspective. A research project examined the barriers to physical activity in two suburbs, Huhtasuo in Jyväskylä and Kontula in Helsinki, Finland.

For those responsible for physical activity services in municipalities, the most important thing is to get people to active and moving.

Traditionally, municipal officials have focused on increasing the number of sports and exercise facilities, making them more versatile, and removing easily recognisable financial, mental and physical barriers. Ways to enhance accessibility have included the pricing of physical exercise facilities and facility solutions aiming at accessibility and safety.

In general, these viewpoints have been the focus when planning physical activity services or implementing the construction or renovation projects of sports facilities.

However, our examination of two densely populated suburbs indicates that these actions are often not enough to activate all groups of citizens.

A skate board area in Kontula's kelkkapuisto park in Helsinki.

There is a skate board area in Kontula’s kelkkapuisto park in Helsinki.

Let’s imagine that we are in Huhtasuo in Jyväskylä or in Kontula in Helsinki. Both suburbs have the type of infrastructure that offers a range of opportunities for physical activity, and they also have plenty of parks and other areas for outdoor activities. Suburban areas usually offer – at least geographically – good opportunities for indoor activities as well as jogging and cycling, which are the favourite types of physical activity for Finns.

Despite what is offered, Huhtasuo citizens have, on average, less guided exercise and engage in less regular physical activity in their free time than do other citizens in Jyväskylä.

The reason for the phenomenon can be found when looking at the barriers to physical activity that citizens report.

The most common ones are lack of time and tiredness or being in low spirits –  not the bad shape of exerbecise facilities, poor geographical accessibility or the costs of exercise activity.

It is worrying that – at least in the suburbs in this study – mental obstacles, such as loneliness and mental health challenges, seem to accumulate in certain socioeconomical groups: people who speak a foreign language, households with a small income, single parents and people with disability pension.

More comprehensive understanding on the accessibility of sports services

The discussion about increasing the level of physical activity in the population often culminates in improving the quality of exercise facilities and keeping the costs low.

However, our examples from the two suburbs show that sports and exercise facilities should be made accessible for everyone also mentally and in terms of skills. Users’ physical or cognitive skills, health, fears or motivation should not prevent them from using a facility.

A nearby open sports facility may be inaccessible because of a person’s earlier experiences or associations that have been created in previous interactions. These could include experiences related to, for example, representatives of a certain ethnic background or people who are in a specific situation in life.

The barriers to physical activity can be lowered in many ways, for example, by providing information about exercise opportunities in more languages, paying attention to the promotion of physical activity more comprehensively in the municipality’s service production, and enhancing cooperation between municipalities, researchers and organisations.

In addition to citizens and municipal policymakers, social and youth workers, teachers, local businesses and third-sector parties also play an important role in increasing physical activity.

Research data about the barriers and motives of physical activity as well as expertise in handling research data are needed to support existing operators and local knowledge.

We need to recognise the barriers related to coping and the use of time, so that it is possible to influence the discussion on the motives behind physical activity. This discussion needs to go beyond infrastructure and the physical environment. The aim should be to recognise what people think about physical activity.

No matter how spectacular the sports facilities next door are, they are no guarantee that you will be physically active. Physical activity also needs to be rewarding and experientially viable.

The authors Lotta Salmi and Ilkka Virmasalo are researchers in the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä in the Equality in suburban physical activity environments project, which focuses on studying the equal accessibility of physical activity environments in Kontula, Helsinki, and Huhtasuo, Jyväskylä. The project is coordinated jointly by the University of Jyväskylä and the University of Helsinki.

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