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New study shows 1.8 billion adults are ‘physically inactive’

Wayne Campbell

A recent study by researchers from World Health Organization (WHO), together with academic colleagues and published in The Lancet Global Health journal, found that nearly one third (31 percent) of the world’s adult population, 1.8 billion adults, are physically inactive. That is, they do not meet the global recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. Alarmingly, this is an increase of 5 percentage points between 2010 and 2022.

The WHO says if this trend continues, the proportion of adults not meeting recommended levels of physical activity is projected to rise to 35 percent by 2030. Shockingly, the global estimate of the cost of physical inactivity to public health care systems between 2020 and 2030 is about US$ 300 billion (approximately US$ 27 billion per year) if levels of physical inactivity are not reduced.

WHO officials define physical activity as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. Physical activity refers to all movement including during leisure time, for transport to get to and from places, or as part of a person’s work or domestic activities. Research indicates that both moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity improve health. Popular ways to be active include walking, cycling, wheeling, sports, active recreation and play, and can be done at any level of skill and for enjoyment by everybody.

Physical activity is beneficial to health and well-being and conversely, physical inactivity increases risk for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and other poor health outcomes. Together, physical inactivity and sedentary behaviors are contributing to the rise in NCDs and placing a burden on healthcare systems. WHO states that improving levels of physical activity will benefit health and well-being and contribute to attainment of global NCD targets and a number of the Sustainable Development Goals. However, this will require increased commitments and investments by member states; innovation and contributions from non-state actors; cross sector coordination and collaboration and ongoing guidance and monitoring from the World Health Organization.

Benefits of physical activity

Mental health and physical health are closely connected. Although not a cure-all, increasing physical activity directly contributes to improved mental health and better overall health and well-being. Exercise causes your brain to release ‘feel good’ chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that help improve your mood.  Physical inactivity is one of the leading risk factors for non-communicable diseases mortality.

People who are insufficiently active have a 20 percent to 30 percent increased risk of death compared to people who are sufficiently active.  Sedentary behavior is any period of low-energy expenditure while awake such as sitting, reclining or lying. Lives are becoming increasingly sedentary through the use of motorized transport and the increased use of screens for work, education and recreation. There is also a generational impact of physical inactivity.

Parents who are physically inactive are likely to nurture their children in a similar manner.  It is therefore imperative that parents realize that they do not only have a responsibility for themselves but also for the future generations. It is also important that physical education, commonly called P.E., be taken more seriously in our schools.  Too many of our children are overweight or are obese as the emphasis of our education system turns to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Evidence shows higher amounts of sedentary behavior are associated with the following poor health outcomes in children and adolescents: increased adiposity, poorer cardiometabolic health, fitness, behavioral conduct/prosocial behavior and reduced sleep duration. In adults, there can be increased all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality and cancer mortality and incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer and type-2 diabetes.

Global statistics

The highest rates of physical inactivity were observed in the high-income Asia Pacific region (48 percent) and South Asia (45 percent), with levels of inactivity in other regions ranging from 28 percent in high-income Western countries to 14 percent in Oceania. Rates of inactivity in the Americas were also higher than the global average, at 36 percent.  Of concern, disparities remain between gender and age. Physical inactivity is still more common among women globally compared with men, with inactivity rates of 34 percent compared to 29 percent. This was also the case in the Americas, with inactivity rates of women at 41 percent, compared to 30 percent for men. Additionally, people over 60 are less active than other adults, underscoring the importance of promoting physical activity for older adults.

The WHO Global Action Plan on Physical Activity provides policy recommendations for countries and communities to promote physical activity and ensure everyone has more opportunities to be regularly active. Examples of these recommendations include policies that ensure access to walking, cycling and non-motorized transport; that increase physical activity opportunities in schools, workplaces, childcare centers and in healthcare service delivery; and that increase accessibility and availability of community sports and public open spaces.

The WHO states that implementing effective policies to increase levels of physical activity requires a collective effort, coordinated across multiple government departments at all levels, including health, transport, education, employment, sport and recreation, and urban planning. It also demands national and local engagement from nongovernmental organizations, various sectors, stakeholders and disciplines to support the implementation of policies and solutions that are appropriate to a country’s cultural and social environment. Priority should be given to policy actions that address disparities in levels of physical activity, promoting, enabling and encouraging physical activity for all.

Prioritize your health

Are you satisfied with your level of physical activity? If yes, you do not need to read any further. However, if your answer is no, let us continue the conversation. Many of us think of gym membership when the conversation of being physically active comes up.  The fact is not many of us have that disposable income necessary to sign up at a gym. So what can we do?  There are inexpensive methods such as YouTube that provide a host of videos on fitness and wellness that can be accessed.  There is also a place for Human Resources departments in engendering a culture of physical activity in the workplace. It would be useful for companies to invest in after work, work out sessions in designated areas where employees can access a trainer or gym equipment at reduced cost or free depending on the company.

Collective efforts based on partnerships between government and non-governmental stakeholders are critical in promoting a culture of physical activity and wellness. Without a doubt this is a public health emergency and urgent action is required.  Governments need to find innovative approaches that will target the least active people and to reduce inequalities in access to measures promoting and improving physical activity. Too many of us complain about not finding the time. However, we all need to analyze our unique situations and create a plan that will increase our physical fitness and wellness. 

In the words of Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, we must renew our commitments to increasing levels of physical activity and prioritize bold action, including strengthened policies and increased funding, to reverse this worrying trend.

This article appeared first on AFRO American Newspapers.

exercise, health, physical activity, World Health Organization

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