Public Health Nutrition

Research Article

Regional, demographic and national influences on attitudes and beliefs with regard to physical activity, body weight and health in a nationally representative sample in the European Union

Anthony Kafatosa1, Yannis Maniosa1, Irini Markatjia1, Ismene Giachettia2, Maria Daniel Vaz de Almeidaa3 and Lars Magnus Engstroma4

a1 Faculty of Medicine, University of Crete, PO Box 1393, Heraklion, Crete, Greece

a2 CPC France, 379 Avenue du General de Gaulle, 92140 Clamart, France

a3 Curso de Cienceias da Nutricao, Rua do Dr Roberto Frias, 4000 Porto, Portugal

a4 Stockholm Institute of Education, Department of Educational Research, PO Box 34103, S-100 26 Stockholm, Sweden


Introduction Although the benefits of physical activity regarding body-weight gain and health in general are now widely accepted, physical activity levels remain low among citizens in the western world. This could be attributed to certain attitudes and beliefs about physical activity. Identifying and understanding these parameters would be the first step in an attempt to increase the levels of physical activity in populations generally characterized as having a sedentary lifestyle.

Objective The aim of the present study was to identify the attitudes and beliefs regarding physical activity, body weight and health in a nationally representative sample in the EU and in particular to explore the demographic and national (cultural) influences on attitudes towards physical activity.

Design In each member state of the EU, approximately 1000 adults aged 15 years and over, were selected to complete an interviewer-assisted face-to-face questionnaire. Overall, a sample of 15 239 individuals in the EU participated in the study. Subject selection was quota-controlled to ensure samples in each country were nationally representative.

Results On a European level wide variations were observed regarding the levels, beliefs and attitudes towards physical activity. More positive beliefs were observed among Finns, while less positive beliefs were observed among southern Europeans. A similar pattern was observed for attitudes, with the Portuguese having the highest percentage feeling that they do not need to be more physically active than they already are. However, most southern Europeans felt that a campaign would encourage them to become more active than they already are. On a demographic level, the youngest, more educated and most physically active subjects had more positive attitudes and beliefs towards physical activity and the health benefits derived from it; while for the overweight, beliefs and attitudes toward physical activity were related primarily to the benefits related to weight control.

Conclusions Lower levels of physical activity, an unwillingness to become active among non-participants and confusion regarding the weight gain benefits and general health benefits of exercise were reported more frequently among southern Europeans and older and less educated subjects. The Finns scored highest in all these parameters, possibly due to the programmes implemented and the beliefs and behaviour changes observed in this country during the last few years. The actions taken in Finland and their benefits could be employed appropriately in the other European states.