The World Is Slipping Into Slothdom

Inactivity is a pandemic that causes untimely deaths, a series of studies says.

Reducing inactivity by as little as 10 percent worldwide could prevent half a million deaths, a study finds. (Photo: Steve Cole/Getty Images)

Jul 18, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

Americans aren’t the only ones guilty of not getting enough exercise. The whole world is apparently sinking into lethargy.

A series of studies in the journal The Lancet examines global trends in physical activity, or the lack thereof. In 122 countries, one paper found, about 31 percent of adults are inactive, and in 105 countries about 80 percent of teens age 13 to 15 get less than an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise a day.

Being sedentary isn’t just a problem for developed countries, although according to the study, high-income countries had more inactive people than low-income countries. One study even called the situation a “pandemic of physical inactivity” to emphasize the pervasiveness of the problem.

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In Africa about 28 percent of people are inactive; in the Americas that number is about 43 percent, in Europe it’s about 35 percent, and in Southeast Asia it’s 17 percent.

Being inactive was defined as not getting half an hour of moderate exercise at least five days a week, or 20 minutes of intense exercise at least three days a week.

Not getting enough exercise has a price. One study looking at the effects of inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide found that lack of exercise causes 6 percent of the burden of disease from coronary heart disease, 7 percent from Type 2 diabetes, 10 percent from breast cancer and 10 percent from colon cancer. Several previous studies have shown a link between regular exercise and having a lower risk of several forms of chronic conditions and diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular disease.

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A life spent sedentary also takes the blame for 5.3 million of the 57 million deaths that occurred around the world in 2008. However, if inactivity levels dropped by 25 percent, that could prevent 1.3 million deaths every year.

Being overweight has long been considered a personal issue, but the series of studies shows that it has turned into a public health matter as well. One study urged government to promote active commuting and build walkable communities. Technology, already available in the form of fitness apps, has even greater potential to help people get moving.

“This is a super, super analysis,” Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic told WebMD. “We know that as soon as somebody gets out of their chair, their blood sugar improves, their blood cholesterol, and triglycerides improve, and that’s very consistent.”

How do you make sure you get moving every day? Tell us in the comments.

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