Global impact of physical inactivity reaching "crisis" level


As elite athletes prepare to compete at the Summer Olympics in sports requiring epic levels of fitness, most spectators will be watching the events on TV. But global rates of physical inactivity are fast becoming a crisis. In fact, the lack of regular exercise is as deadly as chronic disease, say medical experts at home and abroad.


Approximately how many hours each week do you spend engaging in moderate-intensity physical activity (such as brisk walking)?

None 4%
10 votes
One hour 6%
14 votes
Two hours 11%
28 votes
Three hours 13%
31 votes
Four hours 17%
41 votes
Five hours or more 43%
107 votes
None, but I engage in muscular strengthening 0%
0 votes
I can't exercise due to injury or physical problems 3%
8 votes
Not sure 3%
7 votes

To coincide with the launch of the Summer Games, the Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, has just published a series of research papers quantifying the global impact of physical inactivity. The popularity of the Olympics and elite sports such as professional soccer, the journal states, isn’t likely to translate into mass participation in exercise that would improve people’s health worldwide, a fact that requires urgent and international public-health action.

Vancouver sports-medicine doctor Jack Taunton, who is also a competitive marathon runner and a recent B.C. Athletics Hall of Fame inductee, describes the situation as critical.

“It is a crisis, but it’s one that we can do something about,” Taunton says in a phone interview. “We have to get the message out to stave off the chronic diseases we’re seeing.”

According to the Lancet, 63 percent of deaths worldwide in 2008 were due to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), mainly those of the heart and vascular system, diabetes mellitus, cancers, and obstructive pulmonary disease. The failure to spend 30 minutes a day walking briskly increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes by up to 30 percent and shortens life span by up to five years.

The World Health Organization, meanwhile, recognizes physical inactivity as one of the leading risk factors for morbidity and premature death, while the United Nations recently described physical activity as a cornerstone for combating NCDs.

“There is substantial evidence to show that physical inactivity is a major contributor to death and disability from noncommunicable diseases worldwide,” the Lancet states. “However, unlike other NCD risk factors, such as tobacco, diet, and alcohol, the importance of physical activity has been slow to be recognised, and the emphasis to tackle it at a population level has not been forthcoming.”

Men and women of all ages, socioeconomic groups, and ethnicities are healthier if they get the recommended 150 minutes minimum per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, such as brisk walking, the research series says. Children and adolescents benefit from at least 60 minutes a day of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity. Muscular strengthening is also recommended to improve health.

“The big concerns with inactivity are the diseases that become chronic: coronary-artery disease, stroke as a result of hypertension, increased lipids, and obesity,” says Taunton, who cofounded the Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre and teaches sports medicine at UBC. “With those, other debilitating things follow, such as arthritis. For somebody who’s overweight and not fit and not strong, their arthritis…will become much more debilitating than it would in others. For seniors, being inactive causes them to lose their ability to be independent. They withdraw, then on top of that we’re seeing increases in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“It’s critical we start at a young age,” he adds. “In the past, it was our grandparents getting type 2 diabetes; now we’re seeing it in late-elementary-school kids and early-junior-high-school kids. By the time these individuals hit their 30s or 40s, we’re seeing them have heart attacks or strokes, which is unprecedented.

“We need to ensure in communities that we have efforts not just for seniors but for kids and families to walk, cycle, run, swim—whatever—to increase oxygen uptake, cardiac output, and heart rate for 30 minutes, five times a week.”

Taunton says he recently attended a conference of the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine where an entire day was devoted to the “devastation of inactivity” and the importance of getting people active, even if it’s something as simple as getting up from your desk and walking around the office three or four times a day or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

The Lancet’s call for public action on inactivity coincides with Canada’s support of the Exercise Is Medicine program. Developed by the American College of Sports Medicine, it aims to make activity a standard part of global disease prevention and medical treatment. The initiative plans to develop six regional centres so countries around the world can learn about and benefit from the effects of physical activity on health, and so health-care practitioners can effectively counsel patients on exercise needs.

Locally, a new, free phone line has started up to help people in a similar way. The Physical Activity Line is staffed on weekdays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., by certified exercise physiologists who offer both evidence-based guidance on becoming physically active and support to stay motivated. (It’s at 1-877-725-1149 toll-free, or 604-241-2266; people can also email questions to

If physical inactivity were to be decreased by 25 percent, 1.3 million deaths could be averted every year, the Lancet states, and its elimination would increase the life expectancy of the world’s population by almost a year.

Other positive outcomes of regular activity include a sense of purpose and value, better quality of life, improved sleep, and reduced stress, as well as stronger relationships and social connectedness.

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