Friday 23 July 2021

Find the gap: where is the healthy, enjoyable human body in policy?

Posted by Rachel Kurtz, PhD researcher at Durham University

Balancing varied and sometimes conflicting priorities within a large geographical area and between multiple departments is not a job to be envied. Ensuring the detail is suitably deliberated while also holding in mind how a policy affects other interests must be attempted but cannot possibly be achieved to perfection. My role on behalf of County Durham Sport was much easier. Over three weeks in June, I reviewed Durham County Council documents and the priorities of the Area Action Partnerships (AAPs) to identify areas of local strategy that did (or did not) address the issues of physical inactivity and the climate emergency. As an environmentally-informed, lifelong dancer-turned-researcher, I simply had to view the documents from two perspectives in which I am already personally invested and consider possible changes. Some interesting things emerged.

As you might expect, topics are viewed through whatever lens highlights policy concerns in that area. For example, the County Durham Plan understands physical activity functionally, through land use, waste, and movement of people, advocating for active travel (walking, cycling etc.) and providing and improving recreational areas. Meanwhile, the Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategy considers the environment as either beneficial or detrimental to public health, e.g. air quality. Thinking that is limited by departmental divisions can make it difficult to link overlapping policy areas. Consequently, councils are attempting to increase communication and collaboration by forming multi-disciplinary teams to create joint policy and consider issues from multiple perspectives. The County Durham Health and Wellbeing Board (author of the previously mentioned strategy) is one such team. This ongoing shift towards a collaborative approach is already countering siloed thinking and Durham County Council is taking a systems perspective through its work in Mental Health, from its strategic partnership both within and outside the council to delivery vehicles like the AAPs (which give local people and organisations a say on how services are provided). Nonetheless, a change of perspective inevitably exposes assumptions and raises new challenges, and this was no exception.

Encouragingly, some of the documents reviewed, such as the 2018 Open Space Needs Assessment, comprehensively address both focus areas, however in most cases the environment features more prominently than physical activity. A Physical Activity Strategy is still being developed, therefore gaps in this area might be expected and indeed in many cases the human body was entirely absent from policy. However, what was most noticeable was the underlying attitude where physicality was mentioned. Almost none of the policy documents feature the healthy, enjoyable human body. To cite a specific example: while addressing a rising mental health crisis, the Health and Wellbeing Strategy implicitly regards bodies as problems to be solved. This is particularly noticeable in the section on older people who are seen as frail and in need of preventative and remedial support. The framing of the strategy is already being addressed in this case but overall, any focus on the impact of health and wealth inequalities on the body tends to see physical inactivity as a problem rather than an opportunity. There were exceptions at delivery level (e.g. the Healthy Weight Action Plan and some AAP interventions, both of which are very much about enrichment) but at the strategic level, bodies are overwhelmingly framed as problematic. This is true even where you might expect an enrichment perspective such as the Children and Young People’s Strategy and Strategic Walking and Cycling Delivery Plan.

As a dancer and embodiment researcher this outlook is all too familiar, and I understand it as cultural rather than a failing of the council. In the main bodies are accommodated, objectified and treated as problems to be solved, while the sensual, experiencing body is largely ignored. Unfortunately, when we take this deficit perspective, we lose important, humanising opportunities for productive fun. Policy could be very influential in this respect. If we choose instead the underpinning belief that bodies are an incredible gift through which we explore and enjoy an endlessly engaging world, we automatically find more playful and interesting solutions. Suddenly new possibilities abound, like generating power from playground equipment or a dancefloor made with kinetic tiles. When we remember our sense of fun, urban environments become play spaces for curious bodies. Street furniture is for parkour, roller blading or skateboarding as well as resting. Outdoor games and gyms spill out of parks and line the route of our walking commute. Community growing spaces (already a popular solution to poor diet, food miles, climate change preparedness, physical inactivity, social isolation and low income) are no longer confined to small allotment plots but proliferate around the city alongside the begonias, encouraging healthy eating and a pedestrian habit.

Negotiating such varied needs and uses does of course require extensive consultation and consideration, which again highlights the importance of a partnership approach through which all voices are heard, but as I said at the outset, policy making is inevitably a difficult job. The bonus of reframing in this way is that by using strategies that are intentionally enjoyable rather than those that feel worthy or obligatory, uptake is likely to be far higher and as a result there is a better chance of achieving positive outcomes. Surrounded by the richness of creative human expression and snacking on free, community-grown fruit as we walk, jog, cycle or even dance our way to work and school, why would we choose to drive? 

1. Photo by Anthony Fomin on Unsplash
2. Photograph 'Exercise Machines' (2103264189_e26de7ba22_z) by Catherine via Flickr © 2007: (CC BY 2.0) Adapted (cropped)
3. Photo by markusspiske on Pixabay

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