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Let the games begin - as lack of physical activity threatens world health


19 July 2012

On the eve of the Olympics, the world's greatest celebration of sport, a series in the medical journal The Lancet has starkly highlighted the threat a lack of physical activity poses to our health and mortality.

One of the studies found that if physical inactivity could be reduced by just 10 percent, it would prevent an estimated 533,000 deaths a year; if reduced by 25 percent, 1.3 million deaths could be avoided.

Professor Adrian Bauman from the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, is the lead author on one of the papers, in which he investigates why people are physically inactive.

Speaking to the ABC's World Today program he said, "There are some factors that are very consistently determinants of physical activity: men are more active than women, physical activity goes down as we get older, confidence and some of the psychological variables associated with physical activity.

"For children, having parents who support them, parents who are physically active are all associated with kids being active themselves.

"These need to feed directly into physical activity strategies, for example you shouldn't design programs for kids without considering their parents as well. You need to get parents engaged in helping kids be active, that's an important determinant across all the, almost 1000 papers written about the correlates of why people are active and why people aren't."

One of the Lancet papers estimated that worldwide a third of adults (1.5 billion people) and four out of five adolescents are not doing the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, putting them at risk of chronic disease, especially coronary heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancer.

Bauman told the ABC, "It doesn't surprise me after 20 years researching physical activity and public health, but [the series findings] may surprise policy makers and decision makers and may make us all think about how we spend our relative investments in promoting public health and how we might take physical activity a little bit more seriously as something that contributes just as much to the overall burden of disease as things that we invest a lot of money in and give a lot of time to."

In low income countries Professor Bauman said, "More people die from physical inactivity in the developing world than in the developed world. So you've got these epidemics of diabetes, of heart disease, even in Pacific Island countries near to us like Tonga, Nauru, New Caledonia, Fiji - the entire Pacific Island set of countries have high rates of these chronic diseases, physical activity's a major contributor to them.

"And we have almost no research that explains how or why people in developing countries aren't active, so we've got no idea what strategies to develop for them. And this is a real global gap in tackling chronic disease prevention across the world."

According to the Lancet research, 5.3 million people die from a lack of exercise each year, in comparison to 5.1 million from smoking.


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