WHO Study Reinforces Worldwide Pandemic of Physical Inactivity
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WHO Study Reinforces Worldwide Pandemic of Physical Inactivity

Walter R. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM | Sep 19, 2018

Physical inactivity has become a pandemic according to a recent report in The Lancet, one of the most respected medical and health journals in the world. The report’s authors are all members of the World Health Organization (WHO) and are experts in collecting and analyzing large-scale data. A pandemic means that the condition is prevalent all over the world. The impact of the WHO study is not limited to the USA or even to economically developed countries. It reaches both affluent and struggling economies all over the world. We have a lot of work to do.

In a recent CNN report, the lead researcher, WHO’s Dr. Regina Guthold, said "Levels of inactivity are more than twice as high in high-income countries as compared to low- income countries, with an increasing trend in high-income countries. Latin America and the Caribbean, and high-income Western countries are the two regions with the highest levels of inactivity, and with increasing trends in inactivity." Dr. Guthold went on to say that in 2016 (the last year of data collection) more than 25 percent of the world’s population (1.4 billion people) were physically inactive compared to 23 percent in 2010, putting more people at risk for cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and some forms of cancer. The WHO study was a review of 358 published surveys and included 1.9 million adults living in 168 countries between 2001 and 2016.

Despite some very well-intentioned work by many international sports medicine and exercise science organizations around the world, physical inactivity is a continuing problem. Here are some important facts revealed by the report:

  • 16% of people surveyed in low-income countries get an inadequate amount of exercise
  • 37% of people surveyed in high-income countries get an inadequate amount of exercise
  • In east and southeast Asian countries, 26% of adults had insufficient physical activity in 2001, but just 17% in 2016 (the report credits China with leading the way to healthier lifestyles in that region)
  • There is a gender difference when it comes to physical inactivity:
    • In south Asia, 43% of women are inactive compared to 24% of men
    • In the Middle East and North Africa, 40% of women are inactive compared to 26% of men
    • In upper income Western countries, 42% of women are inactive compared to 31% of men
    • In the USA, 48% of women are inactive compared to 32% of men, and the same or similar differences exist for the United Kingdom, India, the Philippines, South Africa and Turkey.

There have been many inspirational efforts to increase physical activity from Healthy People 2000 (and repeated reports in 2010, 2020 and a new one in preparation for 2030) in the USA, to Healthy China, to many other country-specific initiatives. These are all well-intentioned programs. However, the WHO 2025 goal of increasing global physical activity by 10 percent of the population is in jeopardy. As sports medicine and exercise science experts, we can make significant changes, and we need to do it now.

When I was interviewed for the CNN story, I suggested that we need to focus on lifestyle and behavior modification to overcome some sedentary behaviors. We cannot and should not be telling our chronically inactive friends, neighbors, clients, patients or students to simply go to a gym or get more exercise. For some that will work, but for most it will not. An alternative is to make small changes in behavior and small changes in lifestyle to increase physical activity. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator when going up or down one or two flights or parking the car in the last row instead of the first one at the grocery store are just a couple of examples.

Finally, we must make that critical connection between health care and fitness professionals. No longer is it acceptable for a physician to tell a patient to “get more exercise.”  Patients want more guidance. Through the ACSM Exercise is Medicine program, that connection can be made.  Doctors can find fitness professionals by using the United States Registry of Exercise Professionals or the ACSM ProFinder. Time to get moving!


Walter R. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM, currently serves as the Immediate Past President of the American College of Sports Medicine. He is a Regents' Professor and Associate Dean in the College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University. He also serves as the Executive Director of After-School All-Stars in Atlanta, Georgia.