Inactivity puts adults worldwide at risk of disease

More than 1.4 billion adults across the world have an increased risk of disease because they are not exercising enough, the World Health Organization reports in a new study.

There has been no improvement in levels of physical activity among men and women for 15 years. In 2016, more than a quarter of adults across the world did not exercise sufficiently, according to a study conducted by researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO), published today in The Lancet Global Health journal.

Science | 28.05.2019

The recommended amount of moderate physical activity is 150 minutes a week. In 2016, around 32 percent of women and 23 percent of men — that's one in three women and one in four men — did not reach that goal. This puts a quarter of the world's adult population at risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia and cancer.

Approximately 1.9 million people from 168 countries participated in the survey based on self-reported activity levels. These included activity at work, home, during leisure time and for transport. It is the first study to estimate the global trends in physical activity.

Read more: Germans are sitting too much, and it could be deadly

Wealthier countries increasingly inactive

The study, conducted between 2001 and 2016, shows that inactivity levels are more than twice as high in wealthier countries compared to countries with lower incomes. In high-income regions inactivity levels even increased by five percent.

Countries at the forefront of insufficient physical activity include Germany, New Zealand, the United States, the UK, Argentina, and Brazil. In the U.S. about 40 percent of adults were insufficiently active, in the United Kingdom it was 36 percent. Overall, inactivity in Western countries increased from 31 percent in 2001 to 37 percent in 2016.

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In Good Shape | 31.05.2019

Move more, live longer

The skyrocketing inactivity in wealthier countries can be explained with the fact that many people lead increasingly stationary lives, in which occupations and recreational activities have become more sedentary, transport has become motorized, and the general use of technology has risen.

Read more: Obesity in kids and teenagers rises tenfold in last 40 years – WHO study

More support for women

Another point to address is the gender gap in physical activity. All over the world, women were found to be less active than men, except for East and Southeast Asia. Countries such as Bangladesh, Eritrea, India and Iraq registered a twenty percent or more difference in physical activity levels between men and women.

The authors of the study note that these inequalities have to be addressed globally, for example by giving women improved access to exercise that is affordable, safe and accepted in their culture.

Can a global action plan save us?

With increasingly inactive lifestyles, obesity is steadily increasing globally

Just recently, in June 2018, the WHO published the "Global action plan on physical activity 2018-2030" with the aim of preventing and treating noncommunicable diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer, as well as obesity. Inactivity is a major concern for public health and as such should be tackled on a national level, the authors of the new study emphasize.

The WHO's action plan lists a number of policy areas that focus on creating more active societies by developing and improving public spaces. People should be encouraged to follow activities like cycling and running outside. Governments should therefore support the development and maintenance of activity-enhancing infrastructure, the report states.

Without these changes, the shocking inactivity trend will continue and become an even greater public health concern than it is right now. The WHO's global activity target of a 10 percent decrease of inactivity to be met by 2025 won't be reached without significant changes either.

Why a sedentary lifestyle is killing you

We're not moving enough

The health of Germans is at its lowest in history, according to a new report that found just under nine percent of the population follow a 'completely healthy' lifestyle. And the problem is a lack of movement. On average, Germans spend 7.5 hours sitting per day. But it's not just them who are leading sedentary lives - the world over, people are spending too much time perched on their behinds.

Why a sedentary lifestyle is killing you

Is sitting the new smoking?

In recent years, sitting has been dubbed the 'new smoking' because of the seriousness of its public health risks. While not all scientists agree that it should be put in the same category as smoking, over the past 15 years too much time spent on one's backside has been linked to serious health issues, like low blood pressure, poor circulation, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Why a sedentary lifestyle is killing you

Not all sitting is equal

But sitting in the office chair at work is not as strongly linked to long term health risks as sitting watching television is. Spending too much time in front of the telly has been consistently linked to an early death, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Why a sedentary lifestyle is killing you

Frailty on the rise

Women who spend more time sitting down as they age are at higher risk of becoming frail, according to new research from the University of Queensland in Australia. That means they’ll be less likely to recover from illnesses or injuries. But researchers also found the damage could be reversed - so up you hop! It's not too late to reduce the effects of too much time spent on your butt.

Why a sedentary lifestyle is killing you

Sit less, move more

Scientists say, as your total sitting time increases so does your risk of an early death. But if you sit for less than 30 minutes at a time, you could reduce your risk of kicking the bucket too soon. For every 30 consecutive minutes you sit, try to match it with moving and walking for at least five minutes.

Why a sedentary lifestyle is killing you

Enter: standing desks

For office workers, sitting seems to be an unavoidable part of the day. Unless, of course, you write those emails on your feet. Adjustable desks that allow a sitting and standing option have become standard in many workplaces around the world. But the research shows they aren't the best solution - because even if you're standing, you don't expend much energy while staying in the one spot.

Why a sedentary lifestyle is killing you

Huff and puff

Sitting will not undo the benefits of exercise, but the less time you spend sitting down the better. Health experts say it's important for us to move as often as possible, and increase our heartrates in the process - the World Health Organization recommends doing 150 minutes of moderate activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity.