WHO-Funded Study Finds 4 of 5 Adolescents Fail to Meet Activity Guidelines

NOVEMBER 22, 2019
Patrick Campbell
Kids and technologyA new World Health Organization(WHO)-funded study has uncovered a startling trend among adolescents worldwide that could have a long-reaching impact.

The analysis of 1.6 million students—representing 81.3% of the global population of children in that age group between the ages of 11 and 17—found more than 80% of adolescents fail to meet the recommended guideline of one hour of physical activity per day and also found the trend was worse among school-aged girls.

In an effort to evaluate prevalence and trends of physical activity among adolescents, investigators performed a cross-sectional analysis of 298 WHO and other school-based surveys across 146 countries including the United States and Canada. The investigators’ analyses sought to assess trends by country, region, and globally between 2001 and 2016.

For inclusion in the analysis, the sample size needed to include at least 100 individuals and be representative of a national or defined subnational population. Surveys were required to have assessed physical activity in adolescents reported by sex for at least 3 years of age within the 10- to 19-year-old age range. Insufficient activity was defined as not meeting the WHO-recommended physical activity guideline of 60 minutes per day of activity of moderate-to-vigorous intensity.

Investigators noted data availability increased with country income, with 56 of 75 high-income countries reporting data compared to 8 of 31 defined as low-income. Additionally, 73 of 146 countries had data from at least 2 different years—allowing for trend analysis.

Analyses revealed 81% (UI 95% 77.8-87.7) of children between the ages of 11 and 17 did not meet physical activity requirements, with more school-aged girls (84.7%(83.0-88.2)) failing to meet the one-hour threshold than boys (77.6%(76.1-80.4)).

Investigators observed the prevalence of insufficient activity decreased from 80.1% (78.3-81.6) in 2001 to 77.6% (76.1–80.4) in 2016 among boys but this improvement was not as significant among girls with a prevalence of 85.1% (83.1–88.0) in 2001 and 84.7% (83.0–88.2). Based on these results, investigators calculated a global difference of 7.1% between sexes in 2016. No pattern was observed between country income group and insufficient physical activity.

When examining by region, high-income Asia Pacific countries reported the highest prevalence on insufficient inactivity in 2016 for boys  (89.0%, 62.8–92.2) and girls (95.6%, 73.7–97.9). Conversely, the lowest prevalence observed was among high-income western countries for boys and South Asia for girls.

In terms of disparities by sex, 27 countries reported an inactivity prevalence of 90% or greater for girls in 2016—only 2 countries reported levels this high for boys. Furthermore, girls were less active in all but 4 of the 146 countries included in the analyses.

“The study highlights that young people have the right to play and should be provided with the opportunities to realise their right to physical and mental health and wellbeing,” said investigator Fiona Bull, MBE, PhD, of the WHO, in a press release. “Strong political will and action can address the fact that four in every five adolescents do not experience the enjoyment and social, physical, and mental health benefits of regular physical activity.”

This study, titled “Global trends in insufficient physical activity among adolescents: a pooled analysis of 298 population-based surveys with 1.6 million participants,” was published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal.

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