No progress: Physical inactivity remains global pandemic

Experts are calling for urgent action to improve physical activity worldwide, with research showing no progress in nearly a decade and that the Olympics are a missed opportunity to change health at the population level.

A new three-paper series in The Lancet, co-led by a University of Sydney academic and featuring University of Sydney authors, reveals that since the 2016 Olympics worldwide progress to improve physical activity has stalled with deaths associated with inactivity still at more than five million per year.

The slow progress on inactivity has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdowns likely associated with overall less physical activity worldwide.

The series is launched ahead of the postponed 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

The researchers examined the missed opportunity of the Olympic legacy in physical activity promotion, levels of physical activity in adolescents and for people with disability.

The findings highlight that adolescents and people living with disabilities were among the least likely populations to have the support needed to meet the World Health Organization (WHO)’s physical activity guidelines.

In addition, researchers found no measurable change in participation in sports either immediately before or after previous Olympic Games.

“The irony of the Olympics is that for most people they’re really about sitting on the couch watching sport on TV,” says Associate Professor Melody Ding, from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, who co-led the Lancet series with two international colleagues.

“We should consider the Olympics an opportunity to remind the public and our decision makers of the importance of physical activity. This isn’t something we should be thinking about once every four years. It should be a conversation we’re having all the time.”

“Instead of thinking only in terms of elite sports, we should see the Olympics as an opportunity to create a legacy of mass sports participation and promote physical activity at a population level. That’s especially important for those of us who are living sedentary lives in lockdown.”

Recent analysis in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health (not part of the Lancet series) also highlight how investing in promoting physical activity at the population level is key to achieving the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals, which include health and well-being, climate action and sustainable cities and communities.

Associate Professor Melody Ding

Lack of support for people with disability, adolescents

The Lancet series’ global analysis of 1.6 million school children from 146 countries has found no progress has been made to improve adolescent physical activity.

It is the most up to date analysis of its kind, finding 80 percent of school-going adolescents failed to meet the WHO recommended guidelines of 60 minutes of physical activity per day, similar to figures reported in a 2012 Lancet article.

Key findings:

  • 80 percent of school-going adolescents do not meet WHO guidelines for physical activity.
  • 40 percent of adolescents never walk to school.
  • 25 percent sit for more than 3 hours per day in addition to sitting at school and for homework.
  • 60 percent of boys and 56 percent of girls spent two hours or more a day watching television.
  • 51 percent of boys and 33 percent of girls spent two hours a day or more playing video games.
  • However, little is known about how this impacts their cardio-metabolic and mental health.

“We should consider the Olympics an opportunity to remind the public and our decision makers of the importance of physical activity. This isn’t something we should be thinking about once every four years. It should be a conversation we’re having all the time.”

Associate Professor Melody Ding

Olympics must provide a legacy for health that lasts

The third paper in the series found Olympic Games had a minimal impact on physical activity in host cities and are a missed opportunity to promote and improve health at the population level.

Researchers found no measurable change in participation in sports either immediately before or after the Olympic Games. This was true even after the Olympic Games initiated the global impact project in 2001, which suggested that cities collect indicator data before and after the Games that specifically include legacy information on grassroots sports participation.

These findings suggest that more planning and greater public health efforts are needed to generate a legacy of more physical activity following the Olympics or other mass sporting events.

“The Olympics and other mass sporting events are a missed opportunity to change health and physical activity at the population level not only in the host city or country but around the world.”

“The Olympics provide a global stage to get people interested in and excited about physical activity. The challenge is how to translate that enthusiasm into sustained public health programs that are achievable and enjoyable for the general public,” says study lead author Professor Adrian Bauman from the University of Sydney.

The Lancet series also features a commentary comparing the response of cities, including Sydney, to adjust infrastructure to accommodate physical activity in urban places during the COVID-19 lockdown, showing the global crisis has opened a window of opportunity for promoting physical activity in cities.


Declaration: Associate Professor Melody Ding declare no competing interests

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