20 May 2020 — From Olympians to Hello Kitty, influential figures are collaborating with the United Nations to help people stay active during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concerns are growing that being cooped up indoors all day due to the pandemic-induced lockdowns is creating greater risks for high blood pressure, hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and mental illness.

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) signed an agreement to promote health through sport and physical activity.

“WHO works not only to respond to disease but also to help people realize their healthiest lives and this partnership will do exactly that,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.  “Physical activity is one of the keys to good health and wellbeing.”

The collaboration is timely.  COVID-19 is particularly affecting people with non-communicable diseases.  The agreement has a special focus on preventing these illnesses through sport.

“Over the last few months in the current crisis, we have all seen how important sport and physical activity are for physical and mental health,” said IOC President Thomas Bach.  “Sport can save lives.”

He called on Governments to include sport in their post-crisis support programmes because of its important role in preventing both communicable and non-communicable disease.

Man doing lunges holding up a weight.

WHO says that even a short break from sitting, by doing 3-5 minutes of physical movement, such as walking or stretching, will help ease muscle strain, relieve mental tension and improve blood circulation and muscle activity.  It recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity – or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity - physical activity per week, or a combination of both, and provides examples of home-based exercises. (See WHO’s Questions & Answers about physical activity during COVID-19.)

Hello Kitty, Olympians lead exercise

Hello Kitty, a Japanese-born animal character, and Shimajiro, a tiger character, are also helping children and their families stay fit at home.  Their parent companies - Sanrio and Benesse - teamed up to launch the “Exercise with Friends” video series, which reflects public health advice from WHO about the importance of physical and mental health.  The video is avaiable in Chinese, English and Japanese. 

With the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020 postponed to next year, many of Japan’s top athletes are sharing their training-at-home regimes through social media, advising cocooned fans about ways to stay fit and healthy.

“What you need is a simple towel,” says Mitsui Risako, who won a bronze medal in artistic swimming at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  She is one of Japan’s many athletes sharing training advice with anyone following hashtags such as #SportsAssistYou, #Stayhome and #Staystrong.

“We athletes are empowered by the encouragement we get when we compete,” explains Sawano Daichi, Japan’s record holder in pole vault and chairperson of the Japanese Olympic Committee Athletes Commission.  “Now we are giving back to express our gratitude for society and support during these challenging weeks.”

Physical activity good for mental health

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees  reported that the Olympic Refugee Foundation agreed on a number of initiatives to boost the protection of forcibly displaced young people and help improve their mental health through sport.

Two girls doing a Taekwondo kick.

The Foundation is launching a pilot project in Uganda, using sport to improve the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of more than 10,000 refugee and host community young people.

For its part, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has published tips for parents on ways to enjoy playful moments with their kids indoors, as playdates and other group activities are not an option during this time of physical distancing. 

To celebrate this year’s International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on 6 April, the United Nations is encouraging people to find new ways to stay active during this period of physical distancing.

While gyms, pools, dance studios and other public sport facilities remain closed, “that does not mean we should stop being physically active, nor should we disconnect from the coaches, teammates, instructors and fellow fans,” says the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace.

The International Day organizers are sharing resources to help people of all ages stay active and maintain a sense of community. “Through our unique individual skills and collective power, we can come together and share creative ways to improve our health and wellbeing through sport and physical activity – even from the confines of our own homes.”