Most adolescents don’t exercise enough to stay healthy

WHO issues first study of its kind on global and regional trends among 11 to 17-year-olds individuals

Most adolescents aren’t getting enough exercise as screen time increasingly replaces physical activity in homes across the world, putting their current and future health at risk, according to a new study of the World Health Organization.

In the first study of its kind on global and regional trends among 11 to 17-year-olds, the UN agency said that around 80 per cent of them do less than 60 minutes of activity per day – the minimum daily recommendation. According to the study, the Philippines had the highest inactivity levels among boys, at 93 per cent, while in South Korea, researchers found that 97 per cent of girls failed to do enough exercise.

PHYSICALLY ACTIVE: In gender terms on average, 85 per of girls failed to do enough globally, only slightly worse than boys (78 per cent). “From 2001 to 2016, we found that there’s been no improvement in patterns of activity in this age group, one hour out of their lives each day to be physically active and to get a health benefit from being physically active,” Dr Leanne Riley, co-author of the WHO study.

She said that can be made up of different small chunks of their time, anything that adds up to 60 minutes. Insisting that physical activity needn’t be overly strenuous or vigorous for it to be beneficial, she explained that jogging, walking, cycling or just trying to be active can all make a positive difference. She cites some of the causes behind this high level of inactivity.

“We have had this electronic revolution that seems to have changed adolescents’ movement patterns and encourages them to sit more, to be less active, to drive more, walk less, be less active in general and then be more involved in digital play rather than the active play,” she said. WHO urged schools to encourage physical education and get students to be more active in competitive and non-competitive sport.

EXERCISE PROMOTES LEARNING: It recommends city and community leaders should create paths for young people to walk and cycle safely and independently. In the long-term, failing to do enough exercise leaves people vulnerable to a range of non-communicable and preventable illnesses, the UN agency said. These non-communicable diseases include heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, breast and colon cancer.

An additional benefit of physical activity is improved mental health, Dr Leanne Riley insisted, highlighting that exercise also promotes learning, delays the onset of dementia and can help maintain a healthy weight. “If they do it, they’re likely to be healthier adults too,” said Dr Regina Guthold, the WHO study lead co-author, insisting on the importance of establishing healthy habits early on.

GIRLS LESS ACTIVE THAN BOYS: According to the study of 1.6 million school-going students from 146 countries, girls were less active than boys in all but four of them: Tonga, Samoa, Afghanistan and Zambia. The difference between amount of exercise between boys and girls was greater than 10 per cent in almost a third of countries in 2016, and this trend became more pronounced in almost three-quarters of nations surveyed between 2001 and 2016.

The countries showing the most improvement in activity levels among boys were Bangladesh (from 73 per cent to 63 per cent), Singapore and Thailand (78 to 70), Benin (79 to 71) and the US and Ireland (71 to 64). In the case of the US, the study authors noted the likely positive impact of national sports promotion initiatives, although these appeared to have had more success with boys than girls, they said.

Among girls in general the changes in activity levels were small over the review period, the WHO study found, ranging from a two per cent increase in Singapore – from 85 per cent to 83 per cent – to a one per cent increase in Afghanistan (87 per cent to 88 per cent). Under the 2030 Global Goals Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted in 2015, governments agreed to a 15 per cent improvement in activity levels by 2030.

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