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‘Global epidemic’ of childhood inactivity

Written by Science

Four out of five young people worldwide are not exercising enough, which puts both their current and future health at risk, warns the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

The recent WHO study, published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal, gathered survey data from 1.6 million 11 to 17 year olds. It followed physical exercise trends across 148 countries from 2001 to 2016. The study found that globally, more than 80 per cent of adolescents do not meet current recommendations for physical activity per day – 60 minutes of moderate-vigorous exercise.

The findings also revealed that girls were more active than boys in just four of the 148 countries studied (Tonga, Samoa, Afghanistan and Zambia). In the UK alone, more than 85% of girls were not exercising enough in 2016 – compared to almost 75% of boys. Ms Leanne Riley, co-author of the study, explained “in some cultures, adolescent girls are not encouraged or meant to be as active as boys,” and study author, Dr Regina Guthold, highlighted how urgent action must be taken “to promote and retain girls’ participation in physical activity.”

Accessibility, safety and an increased focus on academic performance over health were some of the factors affecting participation. One other predominant factor was the rise of indoor “digital play” compared to previous generations. Dr Mark Tremblay, from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, in Canada, explained how increasing sedentary lifestyles are contributing to the decrease in physical exercise. He said that because of the electronic revolution, “people sleep less, sit more, walk less frequently, drive more regularly, and do less physical activity than they used to.”

According to the NHS, one in six UK deaths is due to physical inactivity (the same as smoking) and it costs the health service an estimated £900 million every year. The WHO suggested policy makers, at both national and local levels, have a responsibility to act “for the health and well-being of all people, including adolescents”. Dr Fiona Bull, another co-author of the study, said: “Strong political will and action can address the fact that four in every five adolescents do not experience the enjoyment and social, physical, and mental health benefits of regular physical activity”.

Last year, WHO member states agreed to reduce inactivity levels by 15%. However, if changes are not made, it is unlikely that this global physical activity target will be met by 2030.

Last modified: 10th December 2019

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