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Globally, adolescents are not sufficiently physically active – WHO

The first ever global trends for adolescent insufficient physical activity show that urgent action is needed to increase physical activity levels in the girls and boys aged 11 to 17 years.

The study, produced by researchers from the World Health Organization WHO, finds that more than 80 per cent of school-going adolescents globally did not meet current recommendations of at least one hour of physical activity per day- including 85 per cent of girls and 78 per cent of boys.

The study- which is based on data reported by 1.6 million 11 to 17-year-old students- finds that across all 146 countries studied between 2001-2016 girls were less active than boys in all but four (Tonga, Samoa, Afghanistan and Zambia). The difference in the proportion of boys and girls meeting the recommendations was greater than 10 percentage points in almost one in three countries in 2016 (29 per cent, 42 of 146 countries), with the biggest gaps seen in the United States of America and Ireland (more than 15 percentage points). Most countries in the study (73 per cent, 107 of 146 countries) saw this gender gap widen between 2001 and 2016 respectively.

The authors say that levels of insufficient physical activity in adolescents continue to be extremely high, compromising their current and future health. ‘’Urgent policy action to increase physical activity is needed now, particularly to promote and retain girls’ participation in physical activity’’ says study author Dr Regina Guthold, WHO.

The health benefits of a physical active lifestyle during adolescence, WHO says include improved cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, bone and cardio metabolic health, and positive effects on weight. The group further indicated that there is also growing evidence that physical activity has a positive impact on cognitive development and socializing. Current evidence suggests that many of these benefits continue into adulthood.

To achieve these benefits, the WHO recommends for adolescents to do moderate or vigorous physical activity for an hour or more each day. The authors estimated how many 11-to 17-year-olds do not meet this recommendation by analysing data collected through school-based surveys on physical activity levels. The assessment included all types of physical activity, such as time spent in active play, recreation and sports, active domestic chores, walking and cycling or other types of active transportation, physical education and planned exercise.

To improve levels of physical activity among adolescents, the study recommends that urgent scaling up is needed of known affective policies and programmes to increase physical activity in adolescents, as well as multisectoral action to offer opportunities for young people to be active, involving education, urban planning, road safety amongst others. The highest level of society, including national, city and local readers, the group said, should promote the importance of physical activity for the health and well-being of all people, including adolescents.

‘’The study highlights that young people have the right to play and should be provided with the opportunities to realise their right to physical and mental health and wellbeing. 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. Policy makers and stakeholders should be encouraged to act now for the health of this and future young generations’’ says Dr Fiona Bull, co-author of the study.

Physical activity trends show slight improvement for boys, none for girls, the study confirms. The new study estimated for the first time how trends changed between 2001-2016- applying the trends from 73 countries who did repeat surveys during that period to all 146 countries. Globally, the prevalence of insufficient physical activity slights decreased in boys between 2001 and 2016, from 80 per cent to 78 per cent, but there was no change over time in girls, remaining around 85 per cent.

The authors note that if these trends continue, the global target of a 15 per cent relative reduction in insufficient physical activity- which would lead to a global prevalence of less than 70 per cent by 2030- will not be achieved. This target was agreed to by all countries at the World Health Assembly in 2018.


In 2016, Philippines was the country with the highest prevalence of insufficient activity aiming boys at 93 per cent, whereas South Korea showed highest levels among girls at 97 per cent, and both genders combined at 94 per cent. Bangladesh was the country with the lowest prevalence of insufficient physical activity among boys, girls and both genders combined (63 per cent, 69 per cent and 66 per cent respectively), the study said.

Some of the lowest levels of insufficient activity in boys were found in Bangladesh, India and the USA. The authors note that the lower levels of insufficient physical activity in Bangladesh and India (where 63 per cent and 72 per cent of boys were insufficiently active in 2016, respectively) may be explained by the strong focus on national sports like cricket. However, the US rates (64 per cent) may be driven by good physical education in schools, pervasive media coverage of sports, and good availability of sports clubs such as ice hockey, American football, basketball or baseball.

For girls, the study said the lowest levels of insufficient activity were seen in Bangladesh and India, and are potentially explained by societal factors, such as increased domestic chores in the home of girls. ‘’The trend of girls being less active than boys is concerning. More opportunities to meet the needs and interests of girls are needed to attract and sustain their participation in physical activity through adolescence and into adulthood’’. To increase physical activity for young people, the group advised that governments need to identify and address the many causes and inequities- social, economic, cultural, technological and environmental- that can perpetuate the differences between boys and girls.

‘’Countries must develop or update their policies and allocate the necessary resources to increase physical activity. Policies should increase all forms of physical activity, including through physical education that develops physical literacy, more sports, active play and recreation opportunities- as well as providing safe environments so young people can walk and cycle independently. Comprehensive action requires engagement with multiple sectors and stakeholders, including schools, families, sport and recreation providers, urban planners, and city leaders’’ said Dr Bull.

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