Globally people are becoming less active, which is damaging their physical and mental health, says the World Health Organisation
There is an urgent need to get people moving, according to research by the World Health Organisation which warns that a quarter of the global population, and more in wealthy countries, are becoming less and less active, damaging their physical and mental health.
Around 1.4 billion adults are not physically active enough to stay healthy, says the research. One in three women and one in four men do not take enough exercise or move about enough, too often sitting at desks all day at work, in front of the TV in the evening and travelling by car.
That, says the research published in the Lancet Global Health journal, puts them at greater risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and some cancers.
The minimum amount of movement recommended by the WHO is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week. That could be anything from cycling to exercising in the gym to doing physical chores about the house and gardening.
Greater wealth goes with sitting still. Half as many people are sufficiently active in affluent countries as in the developing world, where many people still labour every day. But the highest rates of inactivity are in adults in Kuwait (67%), American Samoa (53%), Saudi Arabia (53%), and Iraq (52%).
The UK also has high levels of inactivity – 40% of women do not move enough compared with 32% of men. In the United States, 48% of women and 32% of men are not sufficiently active. Inactivity has got worse over the last 15 years among the more affluent western countries – rising from 31% in 2001 to 37% in 2016. Figures released this week by Public Health England showed that four out of five out of 1.9 million people who had taken an online test had hearts that were more damaged than they should be for their age.
“Unlike other major global health risks, levels of insufficient physical activity are not falling worldwide, on average, and over a quarter of all adults are not reaching the recommended levels of physical activity for good health,” said the lead author, Dr Regina Guthold of the WHO.
At the current rate, the world will miss the UN target, which is to cut inactivity levels by 10% by 2025. Over the last 15 years, they have hardly budged. In 2016, say the authors, a quarter of the world’s population was moving too little. “This puts more than 1·4 billion adults at risk of developing or exacerbating diseases linked to inactivity, and needs to be urgently addressed,” they write.
“National policy needs to be implemented to encourage non-motorised modes of transportation, such as walking and cycling, and to promote participation in active recreation and sports in leisure time. Such policies are particularly important in countries with rapid urbanisation, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, which contribute to the high levels of insufficient activity in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
They also call for “more opportunities for safe and accessible leisure-time activity” for women around the world to address the substantial gender gap.
In a linked comment in the Lancet, Dr Melody Ding from the University of Sydney in Australia calls physical inactivity “a global pandemic”. She calls for governments to act but says the global activity target will not be met unless the issue of women is addressed. “What is needed are progressive, large-scale, multilevel interventions, especially targeting women, that create safe and culturally acceptable opportunities for physical activity and empower women to participate in physical activity,” she writes.
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