Regular physical inactivity increases risk of poor health, including cardiovascular disease, several types of cancer and diabetes, and mental health conditions, according to the WHO.
The study recorded activity levels of 1.9 million people in 168 countries across the world between 2001 and 2016. It showed that women were less active than men, with a difference of over 8% at the global level (32% men against 23% women).
People in high income countries, which include the United Kingdom and the United States, are more inactive (37%) compared to middle income (26%) and low income countries (16%).
In high-income countries, the proportion of inactive people rose from 32% in 2001 to 37% in 2016, while in low-income countries it had remained stable at 16%. In Kuwait, American Samoa, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, more than half of adults were classified as insufficiently active.
“As countries urbanise, people who used to be, say, farmers, and got a lot of physical activity through their work all of a sudden live in an urban environment where they might be without work or move to a sedentary job, so societies need to compensate,” said Regina Guthold, lead author of the study, according to AFP.
The WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of “moderate-intensity” exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming or gentle cycling weekly, or 75 minutes of “vigorous-intensity” activity like running or team sports.
“We definitely haven’t done enough to encourage people to exercise,” said Guthold. “We have seen basically no progress,” she said in reference to global levels of inactivity remaining largely unchanged since 2001.
Guthold said levels of physical activity were not reducing worldwide “unlike other major global health risks”. “Regions with increasing levels of insufficient physical activity are a major concern for public health and the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases.”
The World Health Organization has said that the data “show the need for all countries to increase the priority given to national and sub-national actions to provide the environments that support physical activity”.