Lack of Exercise Puts Teens' Future Health at Risk: WHO
Sun, April 11, 2021

Lack of Exercise Puts Teens' Future Health at Risk: WHO

Most teenagers are not sufficiently physically active and are failing to meet the World Health Organization's (WHO) current recommendations for the amount of exercise they need on a daily basis / Photo by: Sergey Novikov via Shutterstock

 

Most teenagers are not sufficiently physically active and are failing to meet the World Health Organization's (WHO) current recommendations for the amount of exercise they need on a daily basis, experts at the global agency found.

In the study, published in the journal Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, teens were asked about how much physical activity they get both at school and on their own. The researchers say the high inactivity rates weren't surprising, rather it was "disappointing" that the levels of inactivity remain high.

The low activity rates among the world's teens pose a great concern, with great inactivity possibly compromising their current and future health.

Physical Activity Trends Among Teens

The study is the first to look at the global trends for adolescents' insufficient physical activity. It involved 1.6 million students aged 11 to 17 from 146 countries who were studied between 2001 to 2016.

It found that 81% of teens worldwide don't get the recommended physical activity per day, with most girls (85%) failing to meet the recommendations compared to boys (78%). This shows a gender gap when it comes to decreasing the prevalence of insufficient physical activity between boys and girls.

According to the WHO, the difference in the proportion of boys and girls achieving the WHO recommendations was more than 10 percentage points in nearly one in three countries in 2016 (29% or 43 of 46 countries).

The study found that the US and Ireland had the greatest decrease in boys not having enough exercise (71% to 64%), which may be explained by the good physical education in schools as well as pervasive media coverage of sports and access to various sports clubs (basketball, baseball, hockey, etc).

Bangladesh not only showed the lowest prevalence of insufficient physical activity among boys (63%), but it also demonstrated the lowest inactivity for girls (69%) and both genders combined (66%).

This lower level of inactivity among boys in the country could be due to Bangladesh's strong focus on national sports such as cricket while low levels of insufficient activity for girls may be due to societal factors like increased domestic home chores.

However, the overall changes in the girls' inactivity levels were small, ranging from a two-percentage-point decrease in Singapore (85% to 83%) to a one-percentage-point increase in Afghanistan (87% to 88%).

A Concerning Trend

The insufficient activity among teens, although not surprising, is concerning for the researchers.

"What is disappointing is that the efforts that have been made are not reaching the scale or impact that we would want, and the levels of inactivity remain high," said Fiona Bull, program lead for physical activity in the department of health promotion at WHO and senior author of the study.

Bull noted that the world won't be able to meet the WHO's World Health Assembly’s goal of reducing teen inactivity by 15% globally by 2030 given the current rate at which countries are looking to decrease inactivity levels, Time magazine reports.

The results of their work "point to an urgency to act, and a realization that what we are doing is not enough," she added.

Girls being less active than boys, meanwhile, highlights the need to provide a variety of exercise options to appeal to a range of individual preferences between the two genders.

"The solutions are local, but this is a global problem," the study author told Time. This means in prioritizing physical activity, local governments should offer resources that would make both traditional and non-traditional forms of exercise affordable and accessible to everyone.

Bull says, "It’s going to be a challenge to reach the 2030 goal. It will require the whole community [and] whole society to change."

The insufficient activity among teens, although not surprising, is concerning for the researchers / Photo by: Iakov Filimonov via Shutterstock

 

A Need for a Change in Culture

More than providing access to affordable forms of exercise, governments should also identify and address the causes of inequities that drive insufficient activity among teens. Providing adolescents with opportunities to a healthier lifestyle while also eradicating the differences can help bring out the full benefits of exercising.

Saying that having a physically active lifestyle during adolescence is important would be an understatement. Not only do physical activities improve one's cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, but it can also hold a positive impact on cognitive development and socializing.

In the WHO global action plan to advocate for physical activity, The Guardian says it requires a culture change. According to Bull, there are "disadvantages and unintended consequences" in using digital media, including too much time spent on devices rather than physical activities.

The senior author noted one of their recommendations is restricting screen time for children below five years old.

"I think we will see the evidence start to show that in youth, in adults, there is a limit that we should place on these," she said. "We don’t have specific guidelines yet, but we are concerned about the time spent sedentary."

The Guardian reports that schools are often placed under pressure when providing children with the opportunity to participate in sports. Communities and sports organizations can help alleviate this pressure by giving schools the needed support.

Local governments should also have the political will to encourage an active lifestyle while parents should stand as role models for their kids.