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Increase in Physical Activity Lags Despite Calls to Step it Up During the 2012 Olympics


  • Yadira Galindo

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  • Yadira Galindo

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Ahead of the Summer Olympic Games in London four years ago, researchers reported that physical inactivity was a global pandemic that required urgent action. With the 2016 Games looming, University of California San Diego School of Medicine investigators report little change in activity levels worldwide.

Physical inactivity contributes to an estimated 5.3 million deaths each year, similar to the number of deaths attributed to tobacco use and obesity, said James F. Sallis, PhD, UC San Diego School of Medicine Distinguished Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health.

“Because activity has not changed, how many lives have been lost?” asked Sallis. “We’ve wasted four years. There is great evidence that this is one of the big challenges in public health, but the actionable response has not been impressive or systematic. Inactive lifestyles are just accepted.”

In a paper published in The Lancet on July 27, first author Sallis and colleagues found that since the 2012 Olympics more countries have been monitoring activity levels and have drafted national policies to combat the problem, but the plans are operational in only 56 percent of countries. Activity has remained flat, with no increase or decrease, said Sallis.

Despite evidence that physical activity reduces disease risk and improves cognition, approximately 80 percent of adolescents worldwide are not meeting guidelines calling for 60 minutes of moderate to rigorous daily physical activity.  

“This is surprising. Kids should be among the most active,” said Sallis. “There’s no pill that we can prescribe to get people active but we need to find solutions to technological forces in society that are reducing human activity.”

Among adults, 23 percent of the population worldwide fail to meet activity guidelines. Investigators report that approximately 292,600 new dementia cases could be prevented globally each year with an increase in physical activity. The World Health Organization estimates 47.5 million people are living with dementia, but with an aging population that number will continue to increase.

In the paper, the team describes several barriers to implementing physical activity policies, such as an untrained workforce and the lack of multisector partnerships with transportation, education, sport and urban planning that are necessary to make substantial changes. In addition, each country has a unique set of challenges that make a uniform solution improbable.

“Technology is making work and leisure time more sedentary,” said Sallis. “We need to work with other sectors to de-emphasize cars and re-emphasize walking and biking. We also need to work with the technology sector to mitigate inactivity in occupations and the promotion of sedentary entertainment.”

Study co-authors include: Fiona Bull, University of Western Australia; Regina Guthold, World Health Organization; Gregory W. Heath, University of Tennessee; Shigeru Inoue, Tokyo Medical University; Paul Kelly, University of Edinburgh; Adewale L. Oyeyemi, University of Maiduguri; Lilian G. Perez, UCSD/SDSU Joint Doctoral Program in Public Health; Justin Richards, University of Sydney; and Pedro C. Hallal, University of Pelotas.

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