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Over 1.4 billion adults globally at risk of disease from not doing enough physical activity

The diseases include type two diabetes, dementia, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

Image: Pavel1964 via Shutterstock

MORE THAN A quarter of the world’s adult population were insufficiently active in 2016, putting them at greater risk of numerous diseases, a new study has found. 

The diseases include type two diabetes, dementia, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

The study was conducted by researchers from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and published in The Lancet Global Health journal. 

“Unlike other major global health risks, levels of insufficient activity are not falling worldwide, and over a quarter of all adults are not reaching the recommended levels of physical activity for good health,” the study’s lead author Dr Regina Guthold of WHO Switzerland said. 

In 2016, around one in three women (32%) and one in four men (23%) worldwide were not reaching the recommended levels of physical activity to stay healthy – at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity per week. 

The new study is based on self-reported activity levels, including activity at work and at home, for means of transport, and during leisure times, in adults aged 18 years and older.

A total of 358 population-based surveys were conducted in 168 countries, which included 1.9 million participants.

Differences between genders

The study found that women were less active than men in all regions of the world, apart from east and southeast Asia. 

In 2016, there was a difference in levels of insufficient activity between women and men of 10 percentage points or more in three regions. These were South Asia (43% vs 24%), Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa (40% vs 26%), and high-income Western countries (42% vs 31%). 

“Addressing these inequalities in physical activity levels between men and women will be critical to achieving global activity targets and will require interventions to promote and improve women’s access to opportunities that are safe, affordable and culturally acceptable,” co-author Dr Fiona Bull of WHO Geneva said. 

Activity across the world

n 2016, levels of insufficient activity among adults varied widely among income groups, according to the study. A total of 16% in low-income countries were insufficiently active compared to 37% in high-income countries.

In wealthier countries, the transition towards more sedentary occupations, recreation and motorised transport could explain the higher levels of inactivity, the study suggested. 

While declines in occupational and domestic physical activity are inevitable as countries prosper, and the use of technology increases, the authors said that governments must provide and maintain infrastructure that promotes increased walking and cycling for transport and active sports and recreation. 

Meanwhile, in lower-income countries, more people are active at work and for means of transport. 

In 55 of 158 of the countries studied, more than a third of the population was insufficiently active. 

In four countries, more than half of adults were insufficiently active. These were Kuwait (67%), American Samoa (53%), Saudi Arabia (53%) and Iraq (52%). 

Countries with the lowest levels of insufficient activity in 2016 were Uganda and Mozambique (6% each). 

“Regions with increasing levels of insufficient physical activity are a major concern for public health and the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs),” Dr Guthold said. 

Addressing the policy implications of the study, Dr Melody Ding from the University of Sydney said: “The gender gap in physical activity, particularly in Central Asia, Middle East and North Africa and South Asia reveals a health equity issues where women face more environmental, social and cultural barriers to participate in physical activity, particularly in their leisure time.” 

Although high-income countries have a higher prevalence of insufficient physical activity, Ding said that “it is important to note that low and middle-income countries still bear the larger share of the global disease burden of physical inactivity”. 

“It is essential to incentivise transport and leisure time physical activity in emerging economies through improving public and active transportation infrastructure, promoting social norms for physical activity through mass sports and school-level participation, and implementing sustainable programs at scale that could yield economic, environmental and social co-benefits while promoting physical activity,” she said.

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