WHO: Lack of physical activity among the majority of adolescents around the world endangers health

The first global trends in underactivity among adolescents indicate the urgent need for action to improve the level of physical activity of boys and girls aged 11 to 17. The study, published in the Lancet-Child and Adolescent Health, was prepared by World Health Organization researchers. The study found that more than 80 per cent of school-age teens worldwide did not meet the current recommended standard of physical activity for at least one hour a day. More specifically, 85 per cent of girls and 78 per cent of boys were not up to standard.

WHO: Lack of physical activity among the majority of adolescents around the world endangers health

The study was based on data from 1.6 million students aged 11 to 17. The study found that girls in all but four countries (Tonga, Samoa, Afghanistan and Zambia) were less active than boys in all but four countries (Tonga, Samoa, Afghanistan and Zambia).

In 2016, in nearly a third of countries (29 per cent, 43 out of 146 countries), the difference in the proportion of boys and girls who achieved the recommended activity was more than 10 percentage points, with the largest gap between the United States and Ireland (more than 15 percentage points). Between 2001 and 2016, this gender gap widened in most countries (73 per cent, 107 out of 146) covered by the study.

Inadequate physical activity harms the health of young people

Teenagers’ levels of physical inactivity are still very high, affecting their current and future health, the authors said. Study author Dr Regina Guthold, of WHO, said: “Urgent policy action is now needed to increase physical activity, particularly to promote and maintain girls’ participation in the body. “

A lifestyle that is active during adolescence has health benefits, including improved cardiopulmonary function, metabolic health of muscles, bones and heart, and has a positive impact on weight. There is growing evidence that physical activity has a positive impact on cognitive development and social interaction. Current evidence suggests that many benefits can last into adulthood.

To achieve these benefits, WHO recommends that adolescents engage in moderate or intense physical activity for one hour or more a day.

Based on an analysis of data from the school’s physical activity level survey, the authors estimated the number of 11 to 17-year-olds who did not reach the recommended level of activity. Assessments include all types of physical activities, such as time spent on active games, recreation and exercise, active chores, walking and cycling, or other types of active transportation, sports, and planned exercise.

To improve the level of physical activity of young people, the study recommends:

(a) Take urgent action to expand the implementation of known effective policies and programmes to increase the physical activity of adolescents;

Multisectoral (including education, urban planning, road safety and other aspects) action is needed to provide opportunities for young people to move. 

The importance of physical activity to the health and well-being of all people, including adolescents, should be publicized at the highest levels of society, including national, urban and local leaders.

Co-author Dr Fiona Bull, of WHO, said: “This study highlights the right of young people to play. They should be given the opportunity to realize their right to physical, mental and well-being. Currently, four out of every five adolescents do not enjoy the social, physical and mental health benefits of regular physical activity. Strong political will and action can address this issue. Policy makers and stakeholders should be encouraged to act now for the health of this generation and future generations of young people. “

Trends in physical activity show that boys have slightly improved while girls do not

The new study applied trends in 73 countries that repeated the survey in the period 2001-2016 to all 146 countries, thus estimating for the first time the trend changes during that period.

Globally, the prevalence of underactivity among boys declined slightly between 2001 and 2016 (from 80 per cent to 78 per cent), but the situation of girls did not change over time (remaining at around 85 per cent).

The countries with the greatest reduction in boys’ physical insufficiency were Bangladesh (from 73 per cent to 63 per cent), Singapore (from 78 to 70 per cent), Thailand (from 78 to 70 per cent), Benin (from 79 to 71 per cent), Ireland (from 71 per cent to 64 per cent) and the United States (from 71 to 64 per cent). However, the situation of girls changed very little, including a 2 percentage point decline in Singapore (from 85 to 83 per cent) and a 1 percentage point increase in Afghanistan (from 87 to 88 per cent).

The authors note that if these trends continue, the global target of a relative 15 per cent reduction in physical inactivity by 2030 (i.e., the global prevalence of underactivity to less than 70 per cent) will not be met. The goal was agreed by countries at the 2018 World Health Assembly.

In 2016, the Philippines had the highest prevalence of underweight boys (93 per cent). South Korea has the highest prevalence of underactivity among girls (97 per cent) and the highest combined sex (94 per cent). Bangladesh has the lowest prevalence of underactivity among boys, girls and both sexes (63 per cent, 69 per cent and 66 per cent, respectively).

Boys in Bangladesh, India and the United States have the lowest levels of physical inactivity. The authors point out that the low level of physical inactivity in Bangladesh and India (63 per cent and 72 per cent of boys in 2016 were underactive) may be due to the high priority attached to national sports such as cricket. The United States (64 percent) may be likely to be due to good physical education in schools, extensive media coverage of sports, and the widespread presence of sports clubs (such as ice hockey, football, basketball, or baseball).

In the case of girls, Bangladesh and India have the lowest levels of physical activity, which may be due to social factors, such as girls taking on more household chores.

Inadequate youth activity is a major problem

“The trend of girls not being active as boys is worrying,” said Ms. Leanne Riley of WHO, co-author of the study. There is a need for more opportunities to meet the needs and interests of girls in order to attract and sustain their participation in physical activities during adolescence and adulthood. “

In order to increase the physical activity of young people, the authors say, governments need to identify and address many causes and inequalities, such as social, economic, cultural, technological and environmental inequalities. These causes and inequalities may perpetuate differences between boys and girls.

“Countries must develop or update their policies and allocate the necessary resources to increase physical activity,” Dr Bull said. Policies should increase all forms of physical activity, including physical education for physical fitness, more sports, sports and recreational opportunities, and provide a safe environment for young people to walk and cycle independently. Comprehensive action requires the involvement of multiple sectors and stakeholders, including schools, families, sports and recreation providers, urban planners and city and community leaders. “

Editor’s Note

The study, funded by the World Health Organization, was carried out by researchers from the University of Who, Imperial College London and Western Australia.

The authors point to limitations of the study, including the lack of data on out-of-school adolescents, which only included information about adolescents in school. Teenagers attending school may differ from other adolescents of the same age, as they are more likely to come from an advantageous background and may be more focused on achieving good results in other disciplines than on sports and sports. In addition, while the study covered 81 per cent of adolescents in school, coverage varied from 36 per cent in low-income countries to 86 per cent in high-income countries.

The study used only self-reported data, which may have been biased. Data from wearabledevices was not used because it was not possible to compare with self-reported data from surveys.

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