People generally participate in physical activities for two main reasons; play and social interaction however, there is a third reason which provides preoccupation or a healthy distraction for the mind and a fourth which is becoming more popular due to changing lifestyles and habits- fitness. Given the extensive research, studies and facts showing the correlation between physical activity and good health, one cannot but agree to this corroboration even when for many, engaging in a physical activity is seen as a luxury or reserved for certain demographics in the society, for instance, sports is usually played by younger populations. This notion holds truer in non-Western than in Western societies however, in light of EAF's objectives it is more appropriate to discuss the matter as it pertains to the former. In addition to this, rather than observe the general population, the focus here will be on the most vulnerable and impressionable group in the society – persons aged 18 and under, agroup whose activities I will situate on what I call the “recreation spectrum”, which includes in no particular order, physical activities, alcohol consumption and other social engagements. I use the “recreation spectrum” loosely to describe activities people engage in as a form of recreation.
Without having to regurgitate the health benefits of physical activity/exercise or rehashing the “health is wealth” rhetoric, my aim here is to highlight the predisposition of young people to alcohol consumption in the absence of adequate opportunities for physical activities, thus increasing their chances of developing a chronic disease. Many will agree that early exposure and cultivation of sporting activities as an extra-curricular activity in young people may delay or reduce the likelihood of alcohol consumption. In Africa, it is more likely that participation in organized physical activities is mostly done through observation at best and discussing fixtures at worst, for instance, the obsession with European football. Based on my presumption, I will recount how the phenomenon expressed is arguably true in most African cities. Football is the most popular sport in Africa although not as popular as other sports like Wrestling, Cricket and Rugby in some individual countries. Nonetheless, one can assume that football, a popular activity, facilitates the accomplishment of the four earlier mentioned motives for engaging in physical activity, play, social interaction, preoccupation and fitness, play, social, the fourth albeit being an “unintended consequence” – something I will return to later. For me, although having played football as a kid in Nigeria, basketball I would say helped me achieve these four goals – sadly until when the “alternative lifestyle” kicked-in post-teenage years.
In some parts of Africa, it is not uncommon to see young people occupy any available space in order to play football; these non-designated spaces could be landfills, vacant land, streets or even sidewalks. This is a situation more prevalent due to the lack of provision of designated football fields or play areas in communities or neighborhoods. In spite of such constraints young people still actively participate in sports for one reason or the other. Now imagine a community without the least possible space to accommodate such an activity and multiply that by the size of the continent, the implication would mean that young people would be left with little option than to gravitate towards other activities on the “recreation spectrum”, particularly those which most are accessible such as glue sniffing in Nairobi, underage drinking in South Africa or cigarette smoking in Nigeria. I imagine if sport centers popped up like bars in African cities, we may have healthier people than otherwise especially with regards to alcohol consumption per capita rates of 11 litres in Uganda compared to 0.3 litres in Senegal.
Since the focus is on younger impressionable populations, I reckon it would be more than meaningful and ultimately life-saving if African cities are (re)planned with issues like susceptibility to chronic diseases, alcohol and drug abuse in mind. Further investments and strategic initatives would go a long way to create or enhance recreational facilities on a community scale; a fair distribution of recreational versus residential land-uses would ensure different localities have access to some recreational infrastructure. While I cannot deny the efforts by different governments on this issue, it would still require more from city authorities, NGOs, health-care professionals, planners and urban designers in an integrative planning approach to reduce some of the early predispositions to chronic diseases.
Revisiting the “unintended consequences” earlier mentioned, it is noteworthy to say that these consequences as a result of engaging young people in physical activities could initiate a path towards careers in sports, steer them away from illicit activities, improve their confidence, foster discipline and leadership traits as well increase their life expectancy in adulthood. If there was a measure for my presumption, it would be in responses I get from people who wished they had participated in physical activities much earlier in life as opposed to engaging in other activities on the recreation spectrum. If there is one way lifestyle decisions by adults can be influenced, it is from early intervention and exposure to activities that may foster healthy choices.
Adebayo Akesanju obtained a B.A in urban planning from Concordia University, Montreal QC. He is also expected to graduate from the University of Amsterdam upon completion of an M.Sc. in Urban and Regional Planning. He is interested in the built environment and how it affects the quality of life of urban dwellers. Bayo grew up in Lagos, Nigeria but now calls Canada home. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.