The ‘global epidemic’ of adolescent inactivity

The BBC published an article last week reporting on the World Health Organisation’s research which asserted adolescent inactivity has become a ‘global epidemic’. Over 80% of adolescents (11-17 years old) are not getting enough exercise or physical activity, damaging their health (both physical and mental), brain development, cognitive function, and social skills as a result.

This huge study looked at the self-reported physical activity levels of 1.6 million adolescents attending school in 146 countries from 2001 to 2016.

The recommended target used for their research is 60-minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise or physical activity every day. The UK’s physical activity guidelines have recently been updated, and now suggests children and young people should engage in moderate and vigorous intensity physical activity for an average of at least 60 minutes per day across the week. I don’t know whether this subtle change would have any bearing on the figures presented in this research at all, however.

Adolescent inactivity is a global problem affecting all nations, rich and poor. It was emphasised there is no single reason for this ‘epidemic’; rather, many causal factors interact to make it more ubiquitous. Firstly, the emphasis placed on academic performance over physical fitness, with long hours sitting down at school and doing homework is cited as one such factor. Secondly, problems with safe sport, leisure and recreational facilities which can also be inaccessible and costly for many, can also limit opportunities. Thirdly, they report that ‘active travel’ (walking and cycling) and outside ‘active play’ have also taken a hit due to busy and unsafe roads. Add to this, the huge upsurge in ‘digital play’ and entertainment on phones, tablets, computers and games consoles, and it is no wonder physical activity and exercise levels have declined. Other articles covering this research (such as The Guardian and Time) places the blame more firmly on “sitting focused on a screen”.

One other issue highlighted in this article is that there is a clear divide between boys and girls, with girls almost universally less active than boys. 85% of girls in the UK are reported as inactive compared to 75% of boys. Although causation for this was not specifically discussed, a couple of potential reasons were given to include cultural pressures in many countries and greater promotion of activity targeted at boys.

The UK’s 2019 physical activity guidelines state that physical activity levels decline through childhood and adolescence, and that inactive children/adolescents tend to become inactive adults. With physical inactivity ranked as the fourth leading risk factor for premature death worldwide, WHO’s 2001 global goal of reducing inactivity by 15% by 2030 is extremely important, but is reportedly unlikely to be met as the last 15 years have seen a drop of just 1%.

NICE have published some guidance and recommendations on improving physical activity for children and young people, which is well worth a look.

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Dave Lee

Dave Lee

Dave Lee is the co-founder of Amac, he continues to write and produce all our courses and you might even find him teaching you.

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