Putting sport at the centre of Russia’s health policies

Russia is experiencing a health crisis, with high levels of heart disease being one cause of a declining population. But one man is on a mission to change this, through love of fitness.

Russia’s population saw its largest ever peacetime decline in 2020. Although COVID-19 was the principal reason for this, even before the pandemic, Russia’s population was falling. Factors include unhealthy lifestyles, with heart disease being a leading cause of death.

Maxim Zhurilo, a John Smith Fellow (2018) and social entrepreneur, is on a mission to improve the health of the nation by changing attitudes to physical activity. He is the founder of I Love Supersport, a sports school that teaches cycling, running and other sports, and IRONSTAR, a Russian triathlon brand inspired by the Ironman brand. Another recent project is StayFitt, a platform for companies to help employees improve their wellbeing.

In the last few years, Maxim has also been advising national and regional government on widening participation in sport and fitness. His aim is to bring physical activity to the top of the public health agenda and make sport accessible to all.

Personal transformation

Maxim’s interest in fitness began when he met a team who had climbed Mount Everest in 2008. At the time, he weighed more than 100kg and did little physical activity. “That meeting completely shifted my life,” he says. “After that I decided to get fit. I started with running – I ran my first marathon in New York in 2009, then Chicago and then London.

“A marathon is a metaphor. It’s about your goals and ambitions and decision to change your life. I’ve fallen in love with triathlon as well and have completed seven Ironman challenges.”

It was this personal transformation that inspired Maxim to move away from his career in the corporate sector and start I Love Running, which later became I Love Supersport with 45 branches in seven countries. And as his enterprises have grown, so has his desire to help people all over Russia to improve their health.

“When I thought about what I wanted to do, I formulated my personal mission, to make Russia healthier and a better place to live,” he says.

Promoting a healthy lifestyle

At the time of his John Smith Trust Fellowship, Maxim was an adviser to Russia’s deputy minister of health on issues such as involving the population in a healthier lifestyle. When he visited the UK, he was keen to see how government and sports organisations encourage people to take part in sport and fitness.

As part of his tailored programme of meetings, Maxim spent time with Flora Jackson, health improvement manager for physical activity at NHS Health Scotland, learning about how the health system works. In Scotland, physical inactivity is one of the leading causes of premature death. But evidence shows that even small increases in activity can help prevent and treat chronic diseases and improve quality of life. Maxim also met experts from University of Edinburgh, Sport England and London Sport who gave him valuable advice on mass participation.

“One of my major takeaways was around evidence-based policy making,” he says. “I saw a lot of examples of how we can get evidence, how we can research, how we can evaluate and, based on this, formulate policy. I also took a lot of ideas from Sports England about their framework and approach to involving people in sports.”

“With the energy and knowledge I gained from the programme, I have made a significant contribution to rethinking health issues and the impact of lifestyle. Thanks to the programme, my voice has become more powerful and meaningful.”

Leading by example

Maxim believes that creating a better society starts with people taking responsibility for their own health. That includes leaders and policymakers, who can then take steps to ensure sport is more accessible to citizens.

Shortly after his return from the UK, Maxim began working with the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). This is a nine-month leadership training programme for high-level public officials, many of whom go on to become state governors.

“We have a special challenge for participants during the nine months, called Running Across Russia,” he says. “We have a virtual  route between the regions capitals – it’s slightly more than 50,000 kilometres – and as a group they need to cover this distance through physical activity. Running, rowing, cycling, whatever they want.”

Influencing public health agenda

The current minister of health and around 30 governors have taken part in this challenge. Maxim believes this personal experience is crucial when it comes to influencing the public health agenda. Several governors have even started running with their citizens, bringing them closer to their communities.

Maxim has also worked with state governors to look at how urban environments can be improved to increase public participation in sports such as cycling.

“I involved them in the idea of cycling promotion in their regions, so they put it in their strategies. Usually it’s connected with the environment – with cycle and recreational lanes,” he says. This has seen some successes, notably in the oil town of Almetyevsk.

Expert advisor for National Project

In 2019, Maxim was invited to join the expert board for the Demography National Project. One of eight major national projects with goals set for 2030, this addresses issues linked to population, life expectancy and quality of life.

Maxim says: “My role on the expert board is very connected with my experience in the UK, with evidence-based policy making, benchmarking and research matters. We have shifted the focus of the sports strategy from professional sport to large scale participation (amateur sport). Before that, the draft strategy of the Ministry of Sport was focused largely on professional sports, without any significant parts connected with a large-scale audience.”

He is also working with the Ministry of Health to create strategic links between physical and mental health, fitness and urban planning. As part of this, he drew on a methodology used by the World Happiness Report to illustrate the correlation between life satisfaction and life expectancy, which he says is “quite new for Russian policy making”.

Speaking of this recent work, Maxim says: “It’s one of the most interesting parts of my life now. My role is that of an advisor and expert, not a policy maker. But I’m thinking about it and if it could be possible in future, I would like to shift from entrepreneurship and private sector to public sector policymaking in this field.”

Find out how our Fellow  Dilfuza Kurolova is protecting rights and making citizens’ voices heard in Uzbekistan.