More progress needed to improve global physical activity, experts say

Worldwide progress to improve physical activity has stalled, and overall deaths associated with inactivity remain at more than five million people per year, a new study suggests.

Researchers also found that the Olympics remain a missed opportunity to increase physical activity in host countries.

They argue that physical activity public health initiatives should be incorporated into Olympic and mass sporting event planning.

It comes as the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are due to get under way later this week.

According to the study, no progress has been made to improve adolescent physical activity since 2012, with 80% still not meeting World Health Organisation activity guidelines.

People living with disabilities (PLWD) are 16-62% less likely to meet physical activity guidelines and policymakers should do more to advance their rights to participate in physical activity, the researchers say.

They add that during coronavirus lockdowns exercise was considered by many governments as an essential activity.

However, daily physical activity must be promoted as an essential human need beyond and independent of Covid-19, the experts argue.

Physical inactivity is linked to an increased risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

Olympic rings
The Olympic Rings (Adam Davy/PA)

They are estimated to cost at least 54 billion dollars (£39 billion) per year in direct health care costs of which 31 billion dollars (£22 billion) is paid by the public sector.

The findings suggest the slow progress to improve physical activity worldwide has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, with lockdowns likely associated with overall less physical activity worldwide.

In addition, inactive people and those with NCDs are more likely to be admitted to hospital or die if they develop the disease.

The findings come from a new three-paper Series published in The Lancet.

One paper suggests the Olympics must provide a legacy for health that lasts.

Lead author of the paper, Professor Adrian Bauman of the University of Sydney, said: “The Olympics and other mass sporting events are a missed opportunity to change health and physical activity at the population level not only in the host city or country but around the world.

“The Olympics provide a global stage to get people interested in and excited about physical activity.

“The challenge is how to translate that enthusiasm into sustained public health programmes that are achievable and enjoyable for the general public.”

Another study indicates that despite the growing number of young people diagnosed with non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cardio-metabolic and mental health disorders, the research on adolescent physical activity is limited.

Tokyo Aquatics Centre
Tokyo Aquatics Centre (Mike Egerton/PA)

Global analysis indicates that 80% of school-going adolescents are failing to meet the WHO recommended guidelines of 60 minutes of physical activity per day, with little progress made since 2012.

In addition, 40% of adolescents never walk to school and 25% sit for more than three hours per day on top of sitting at school and for homework.

The researchers also examined screen time in adolescents in 38 European countries and found that 60% of boys and 56% of girls spent two hours or more a day watching television.

The study found 51% of boys and 33% of girls spent two hours a day or more playing video games.

Lead author of the paper, Dr Esther van Sluijs of the University of Cambridge, said: “We desperately need to explore both the short- and long-term consequences physical inactivity has on adolescents, and identify effective ways of promoting increases in physical activity, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Virtual schooling and social distancing have drastically reduced physical activity and increased use of screens, and the consequences of these changes could last a lifetime.”

A second paper argues that more must be done to empower people living with disabilities to participate in physical activity.

Dr Kathleen Martin Ginis of the University of British Columbia, Canada, and lead author of the paper, said: “Interest in disability sport continues to grow and could be a key driver in promoting more empowerment, participation, and inclusion for PLWD.

“But we also need more research focused on PLWD as well as cohesive, targeted policies and guidelines to ensure the rights of PLWD are upheld and allow for full and effective participation in physical activity.”