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Lack of Physical Activity Global Contributor to Early Death

Sedentary person

Key Takeaways

  • A chronic lack of physical activity may be linked to up to 8 percent of deaths, a new study suggests.
  • The problem appears to be more pronounced in high-income countries, but is increasing in lower-income countries as well.
  • Other recent research has highlighted that it doesn’t take much physical activity to decrease these type of risks.

 

Physical inactivity has become a global problem that is responsible for up to 8 percent of early deaths, according to new research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Researchers looked at physical activity levels and health outcomes for 168 countries in 2016. They defined inactivity as falling below the recommended amount of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week.

Countries, where inactivity was widespread, appeared to have a higher incidence of diseases like coronary heart disease, obesity, diabetes, stroke, cancer, among others, that lead to early mortality.

Physical activity may include structured exercise sessions but can also involve other types of movement, such as walking, gardening, and even household chores.

Results by Income Level

Researchers looked at data based on the income levels of each country. They found that physical inactivity in high-income countries were more than double that of low-income countries.

But it’s actually middle-income countries that have the greatest number of people affected by the issue, and as a result, these countries face the most strain on their healthcare resources.

For example, 69 percent of all deaths and 74 percent of cardiovascular disease deaths associated with physical inactivity occur in middle-income countries. The highest burden is in Latin American and Caribbean countries. The lowest burden is in sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and Southeast Asia.

How Does the Pandemic Factor In?

The data in the recent study was taken years before the pandemic, so it’s possible that the issue has become even more problematic in the past year.

For example, a research review in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine that compared physical activity levels before and after COVID-19 restrictions found significant decreases in physical activity and increases in sedentary behaviors, which included including children and people with chronic medical conditions.

This happened despite efforts from government organizations to provide guidance on maintaining activity during quarantine, according to that study’s co-author, Mike Trott, Ph.D(c), at the Cambridge Centre for Sport and Exercise Sciences at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K.

Mike Trott, PhD

Decreased activity may lead to increases in undesirable mental health outcomes, and some studies have shown significant increases in anxiety and depression during the lockdown.

— Mike Trott, PhD

Some of the research also suggests that those who were more active before COVID tended to show larger decreases in physical activity once lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were put in place. In addition to physical health risks for everyone, this situation could have a major impact on mental health, says Trott.

“Decreased activity may lead to increases in undesirable mental health outcomes, and some studies have shown significant increases in anxiety and depression during the lockdown,” he states. “Due to the likelihood of further COVID-19-related restrictions, or even another, similar pandemic, the promotion of digital-based physical activity is recommended.”

For example, that could mean the promotion of resources and tools like:

  • Online fitness classes
  • Video-based personal training or physical therapy
  • Apps that encourage activity
  • Fitness trackers
  • Programs that structure outdoor exercise like walking

The increase in sedentary behavior is not surprising, adds Trott, especially with people working from home and kids attending school virtually.

Every Bit of Movement Helps

Although meeting the activity recommendations is important for reducing health risks, the good news is that even a few minutes of movement will contribute to the overall total, says Emmanuel Stamatakis, Ph.D., from the School of Public Health, University of Sydney.

“Especially if you’ve been sedentary, starting to move more with short bursts of exercise can be helpful for creating better habits, and can even have profound effects on physical and mental health,” he says. “Think of these as ‘movement snacks’ like sprinting up the stairs or going for a short walk as your break from work.”

Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD

Especially if you’ve been sedentary, starting to move more with short bursts of exercise can be helpful for creating better habits, and can even have profound effects on physical and mental health

— Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD

Recently updated guidelines from the World Health Organization, which Stamatakis helped co-author, emphasized the serious risks of lower activity levels and mentioned depression as well as mobility concerns for older people. But people of all ages really do need to get moving, Stamatakis believes.

"We suggest people see the weekly recommended physical activity levels as the minimum," he says. "The best aim would be to exceed them. This is supported by growing scientific research about the serious health problems that can come with large amounts of sedentary time."

What This Means For You

Even before the pandemic, activity levels globally were too low, and that contributes to significant health risks, including early mortality. The good news is that all movement counts, so starting with easy activities like walking or household chores can be a good start to a fitness routine.

 

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  1. Katzmarzyk PT, Friedenreich C, Shiroma EJ, et al Physical inactivity and non-communicable disease burden in low-income, middle-income and high-income countries British Journal of Sports Medicine Published Online First: 29 March 2021. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2020-103640

  2. Stockwell S, Trott M, Tully M, et al Changes in physical activity and sedentary behaviours from before to during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown: a systematic review BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 2021;7:e000960. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2020-000960