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Global Comparisons of Physical Activity and Inactivity

Posted: Mon, 14 Mar 2016 13:25

Global Comparisons of Physical Activity and Inactivity

It is well-recognised that levels of physical activity (PA) in the UK are not only too low, but are also contributing to the growing health crisis. While obesity and PA are often linked, we still await the Government's long overdue Obesity Strategy to understand how important PA will be in Government plans to tackle this particular issue. In any case, the evidence is clear, PA is good for your health and therefore also for our much-overloaded NHS.

With global bodies, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), acknowledging an obesity crisis, PA is coming under increasing scrutiny from policy-makers around the world. And the data indicates that low levels of PA are a common problem in many countries.

Whilst finding detailed, reliable and comparable data is a challenge, nearly 196 countries now have at least one survey on PA. In 2013 alone, papers on PA were published from 105 countries, highlighting that this is a global issue that demands attention.

So in this increasingly global context, is the UK any more or less active than other countries? In a paper published by the Sportsgroup, Physical Activity in the UK - How do we compare with other countries? (January 2016), Alex Scott-Bayfield explores the evidence and comes up with some insightful conclusions.

Current national position

Scoty-Bayfield highlights a wide variety of data including that the Health Survey for England in 2012, classed 22.5% of adults in England as "inactive"[1]. Similarly, in 2014, UKActive published an analysis of the data from Sport England's Active People Survey finding that 25% of over 16 year-olds in England could be classed as "physically inactive"[2].

The Eurobarometer Survey on Sport and Physical Activity, however, states that 35% of UK adults never exercise or play sport, whilst 23% also do not engage in other, non-sporting physical activity (cycling from one place to another, dancing, gardening etc.).

Comparisons with Other Countries

To find a comparison Scott-Bayfield looks to the Eurobarometer Survey on Sport and Physical Activity which is carried out every 7 years and provides data across the 28 EU Member States), and the WHO/EC Country Profiles on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity. Here the UK seems to compare favourably to both the European average, and to similar European nations.

The Eurobarometer survey finds the UK percentage of adults who never exercise or play sport (can you add the figure in please) is better than the European average of 42%. It is also better than in France, Spain and Italy and only Germany has less inactive people than the UK with 29%.

Another source of data is the Global Observatory for Physical Activity (GOPA) who were established in 2014 in response to the growing awareness of physical inactivity. GOPA "Physical Activity Country Cards" provide data on the "prevalence of activity" across 9 nations.

According to this data, England scores slightly below the global average of "the percentage of the population who are achieving the recommended or sufficient amounts of physical activity per week", at 59% (the average is 63%). England also scores significantly lower than Germany at 79%, but higher than Australia and New Zealand at 43% and 52% respectively.

These figures are somewhat contradicted by national research in Australia and New Zealand indicating its populations to have a much lower percentage of 'inactive' people than both the USA (national research indicates 28.3% of Americans are 'inactive') and the UK, with only 20% and 14% respectively- an example of how differences in national and international research methods can lead to conflicting data.


While Scott-Bayfield, warns us to be cautious at drawing too many concrete deductions from this data, she argues that some broad inferences can be made:

  • Inactivity in the general population is not just a UK problem - similar developed nations record North America and Australasia.
  • National data suggests that both Australia and New Zealand have a significantly lower level of inactivity than other comparable countries.
  • Conclusions cannot be drawn until clear, consistent and unifying metrics are adopted.

Her call for a single data-collection system, with a clear objective and consistent survey mechanisms, rolled out across the globe, is a strong one. This would add to our knowledge about how humans engage PA in different cultures helping policy-makers better understand how to tackle the rise of inactivity.

To that end, if New Zealand and Australia are leading the world with the lowest level of inactivity, a particular focus should be given to better understand what policies or cultural context helps deliver this.

In a final word, Scott-Bayfield offers a further reason for more coordinated research in this area. She argues that physical inactivity is affected by many factors and the reasons for increasing levels of inactivity, particularly in economically advanced nations, are complex.

She concludes that the evidence suggests the level of a country's economic development may impact its inactivity levels: populations in economies that are more service-based become less active, simply because their everyday employment is spent in less active roles - services are more sedentary and less physically active than either agriculture or industry.

She argues this has potentially important ramifications for policy-makers, especially considering our own, increasingly service-based, technology-lead society. That policy-makers can no longer assume that people will be active through their jobs, nor will they engage in PA in their outside of their service-based employment: they will not choose to be active in their leisure time. If this is a side-effect of economic development, it may be the first time that governments have had to face this problem.

Luke Regan and Mark Balcar

Luke Regan is Researcher for The Sports Think Tank; Mark Balcar is Director of The Sports Think Tank

[1] Health Survey for England 2012, Chapter 2, para 2.3.2

[2] UKActive, Turning the Tide of inactivity, 2014, p11

Tags: Policy, Sport, Sport for development, community sport


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