The majority of older children and teens around the world are not getting enough exercise, putting their current and future health at risk, according to new research from the World Health Organization (WHO).
For the study, published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal, researchers analyzed data collected between 2001 and 2016 from 1.6 million school-going children in 146 countries.
They found that 81 percent of young people aged 11 to 17 are currently not meeting WHO’s physical activity recommendation for that age group — at least an hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise daily.
They also found a significant physical-activity gender gap. A discouraging proportion — 78 percent — of boys are not currently active enough, but that figure jumps to a dismal 85 percent for girls.
In fact, in only four countries (Afghanistan, Samoa, Tonga and Zambia) are girls as physically active as boys. Almost a third of the countries (29 percent) have a physical-activity gap between boys and girls that is more than 10 percentage points, and three out of four countries (73 percent) saw this gender gap widen between 2001 and 2016.
One of the biggest gaps is in the United States, where 80 percent of girls are not active enough compared to 64 percent of boys — a difference of 16 percentage points.
“Urgent policy action to increase physical activity is needed now, particularly to promote and retain girls’ participation in physical activity,” said Regina Guthold, the study’s lead author, in a released statement. Guthold is a technical officer at WHO’s Chronic Disease Risk Factor Surveillance in Geneva, Switzerland.
Regular physical activity is an essential component of young people’s health. It helps them build strong bones and muscles, improve their heart-lung fitness, control their weight and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also reduces their risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and other medical conditions later in adulthood.
Interestingly, WHO researchers found no clear pattern between the level of adolescents’ physical activity and a country’s income. About 85 percent of young people in low-income countries, 80 percent in lower-middle-income countries, 84 percent in upper-middle-income-countries and 79 percent in high-income countries are insufficiently active, according to the study.
This is not the pattern found among adults. In a 2018 study, WHO researchers reported that adults living in high-income countries were almost twice as likely to not get enough exercise as adults living in low-income countries.
Bangladesh, a lower-middle-income country, has the lowest level of insufficient physical activity among boys (63 percent) and girls (69 percent), as well as among both genders (66 percent). The most likely reason for Bangladesh boys having a relatively low level of inactivity, say the researchers, is the country’s strong emphasis on cricket and other national sports. But for Bangladesh girls, the reason has more to do with the expectation that they will perform household chores.
The highest rates of adolescent inactivity were found among high-income Asian countries. Indeed, in South Korea, 97 percent of young people are insufficiently active — the highest level in the world.
The researchers cite two possible factors for why adolescents living high-income Asian countries spend so little time exercising: the emphasis in those countries on education over physical activity and the widespread use of digital and screen-based technologies that encourage children to be sedentary.
Goal likely to be unmet
WHO set a goal in 2018 to reduce global inactivity among young people by 15 percent — to less than 70 percent — by 2030. The findings from this new study indicate the goal will not be met.
“The study highlights that young people have the right to play and should be provided with the opportunities to realize their right to physical and mental health and well-being,” said study co-author Fiona Bull, director of the Centre for Built Environment and Health at the University of Western Australia, in a released statement.
“Policymakers and stakeholders should be encouraged to act now for the health of this and future young generations,” she added.
FMI: You can read the full study on The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal’s website.