Directions for Physical Activity and Health from the 7th ISPAH 2018 Congress

Last week held the 7th International Society for Physical Activity and Health (ISPAH 2018) Congress at the Queen Elizabeth 2nd Conference Centre in London. At my first international conference, I was amazed at the huge number of delegates, quality of research presented, and passion for physical activity and health. The congress began highlighting the developments in physical activity research and implementation over the past few years and unfortunately a lack of change in physical activity levels. From the Congress, I felt there were some clear directions for physical activity and health.

Understanding the people

Throughout the congress there was an importance on understanding people to increase physical activity. Some presentations, keynotes and debates touched upon increasing this understanding, but I felt there was no real emphasis on integrating more qualitative work or co-creation techniques into the designing of physical activity and sedentary behaviour interventions.

Nevertheless, on the first day Gina Radford (Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England) unveiled the Physical Activity for Disabled Adults guidelines. These guidelines were co-created with people living with disabilities and based on evidence. Additionally, Jennie Price (Chief Executive Sport England) highlighted the work for the This Girl Can campaign to try to increase physical activity levels among women. Jennie really highlighted the need for the work that has gone into understanding the lives of women from low income backgrounds to identify their barriers. I am very excited to see the next phase of their campaign. Also, Prof. Louise Mansfield (Brunel University London) highlighted the need to understand peoples’ lives and journeys, so we don’t miss the emotional aspect of what changes behaviour.

Integration of technology

During ISPAH 2018, I felt there was a surprising lack of focus on the utilisation of commercially available technology in our everyday lives to increase physical activity. Prof. Nanette Mutrie (University of Edinburgh), during the physical activity guidelines debate session on day three, aided to the fact that technology and understanding the use of technology is the future.

Considering the innovation and development of objective physical activity measurement tools over the recent years, I felt there was still a great deal of research presented which used self-report measures. We know the self-report measures are unreliable as activity levels tend to be overestimated and they also rely on people’s memory of their activities and their interpretation of the questions. I am not sure people really know what moderate-to-vigorous physical activity means let alone what activities in their lives count as moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

The number of people who track their physical activity or monitor how many steps they take each day is more than it’s ever been and will continue to grow as technology progresses and the availability of technology increases. Everyone with a modern smartphone can see how many steps they have taken each day (when they have been walking with their phone anyway). People may not fully understand what moderate-to-vigorous physical activity means, but they know if they have reached 10,000 steps. Prof. Catrine Tudor-Locke (University of Massachusetts) highlighted in the debate that it may be a matter of translating the current guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity into something that people understand and can easily keep track of, such as step counts. Some people may not necessarily be able to do 10,000 steps, such as those who have physical disabilities, but this is where guidance can be tailored. Overall, for the large majority, the message should be ‘every step counts’.

Who knows what the future holds for physical activity and health. Maybe we will all have super accurate technology which will know exactly how much time we have spent sitting, walking or exercising. Researchers may use a combination of activity trackers and tiny wearable cameras to getting absolute data on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. Technology may even be able to tell us what doing 10,000 steps has done for our health.

Implementation, dissemination and impact

Over the years not much has changed in terms of improving physical inactivity. Although it could be worse, it’s time there were changes. Researchers, practitioners and policy makers on physical activity need to increase the impact of their work. 

During ISPAH 2018 there were a number of wonderful interventions being conducted all over the world in an attempt to increase physical activity. But there are so many! So much time and effort has gone and is going into creating new complex online interventions or mobile phone apps to increase physical activity or reduce sedentary behaviour. If the intervention is successful and it works, why hasn’t it been disseminated across the region, country or world? In an ideal situation, wouldn’t we gather the best parts of all those interventions and create one successful intervention that is appropriately tailored and disseminated across the world? 

As Prof. Ross Brownson (Washington University) rightly highlighted researchers, health practitioners and policy makers perceive impact differently. Everyone needs to learn to speak the same language and communicate their learnings to a wider audience with researchers communicating to healthcare practitioners and policy makers and vice versa.

In a global effort to influence, who better to advocate physical activity than Fiona Bull from the World Health Organisation (WHO). The Physical Activity ACTIVE Policy Toolkit was actively launched on day three of ISPAH 2018 with the throwing of WHO footballs (although the instruction was to pass!). The toolkit aims to help governments across the world to reduce the shocking levels of physical inactivity and the related health, social and economic consequences.

More research is needed…

Finally, and obviously, more research is needed… We always need to learn more, we always need to know more.

The world we live in is constantly changing and we can’t really keep up. We need to know more about how people use the available technology and integrate it into their lives. We need to try to keep up with advancements in technology and understand how it is being used and how researchers, health care practitioners and policy makers can utilise its use to increase physical activity globally.

Hopefully my own PhD research will help us to understand more about how people use technology for monitoring their physical activity and sedentary behaviour.

However, we can’t necessarily wait for the research to be conducted and published before we take action.


Looking forward to ISPAH 2020 for the 8th Congress in Vancouver. I wonder what ground breaking developments will be made over the next 2 years for physical activity and health!


Thank you for reading!

Do get in touch if you have any questions, comments or thoughts and do take a look at my poster presentation for ISPAH 2018 on the preliminary findings from a systematic review of the barriers and facilitators to using mobile phone apps and wearables for monitoring physical activity and sedentary behaviour.

1 thought on “Directions for Physical Activity and Health from the 7th ISPAH 2018 Congress”

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