The first European Week of Sport provides us with a great opportunity to reflect on the role we all play in helping to get people engaged and active in sport. The sport sector has been superb at getting those already active even more active through the provision of better facilities, opportunities and interventions. A greater challenge is how to get those who rarely or never participate off the couch and engaged in sport and physical activity. The outdoors provides a fantastic opportunity for meeting this challenge.
In recent years, the popularity of outdoor recreation activities has been growing, particularly those undertaken independently rather than through organised clubs and bodies. This can perhaps be explained by the accessibility of outdoor spaces and the variety of opportunities they provide for people of different ages, interests and fitness levels to get active. Whether it’s a gentle walk through local parks, a cycle across rural trails, or rock climbing in the mountains, the potential for physical activity provided by our outdoor spaces is vast. As well as the inherent benefits to our health through physical activity, outdoor recreation also provides us with a way of taking time to interact with our green spaces, something recognised across the world as very important for mental wellbeing in particular. From a financial perspective, there are further benefits. Good outdoor spaces and recreation opportunities can provide tremendous opportunities for local economies and tourism, both locally and internationally. Getting back to the theme of accessibility, one of the great positives of outdoor sport is that costs are often relatively low, not only for providers but for end users as well.
At a European level, the potential and importance of the outdoors and outdoor sport has been firmly established. The European Network of Outdoor Sports (ENOS) was created in 2011 to provide organisations involved in developing, promoting and managing outdoor sport across Europe a means of sharing ideas and expertise, developing partnerships and taking a collaborative approach to support the protection and free use of mountains, forests and water. This collaborative approach to outdoor sports development has also been applied locally. In 2013, Northern Ireland became the first region in the UK to publish an Outdoor Recreation Action Plan. Engaging the Government, business and voluntary sectors, the Plan allowed us to clearly set out a series of measures covering themes such as legislation, funding, structures and research, enabling us to take a holistic approach to making outdoor spaces both accessible and sustainable. The implementation of the plan is now underway and has already led to some great developments for community trail networks delivered by our partners Outdoor Recreation NI.
It’s tremendous to see European Week of Sport highlight ‘outdoors’ for one its themed days of the Week, and I’m greatly looking forward to representing Sport Northern Ireland at the flagship event in Brussels for a workshop exploring how the outdoors can help to deliver on the EU objectives for increasing participation. During the workshop I will be providing a presentation on how we are striving to engage people with outdoor spaces here in Northern Ireland through the implementation of our Action Plan.
Looking further ahead, later in this month the 3rd Nature and Sport Euro’meet will be happening in Northern Ireland and this is a fantastic opportunity to hear examples of good practice from across Europe about how other regions have developed opportunities for health-enhancing physical activity in the outdoors.
Mike McClure is Outdoor Recreation Development Officer for Sport Northern Ireland and Secretary of the European Network of Outdoor Sports (ENOS).