By John Kerr 28/07/2016

The world needs to lift its game when it comes to exercise, warn public health researchers, saying we face a “global pandemic” of physical inactivity.

The call comes as part of Special Series published today in leading medical journal The Lancet. The authors of the Series warn there has been too little progress in tackling the global pandemic of physical inactivity, with a quarter of adults worldwide still failing to meet current recommendations on physical activity. The series lays out the costs of physical activity – including for New Zealand specifically – as well as some possible solutions.

You can read more about the full series on

Only a little bit of exercise needed

Even just a small amount of exercise makes a difference. Flickr / Ze'ev Barkan.
Even just a brief walk makes a difference. Flickr / Ze’ev Barkan.

One of the papers published in the series highlights some good news: it only takes a small amount of exercise to offset the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle.

Researchers analysed data from over one million individuals across 16 studies, finding that people who sat for eight hours a day but were physically active had a much lower risk of early death compared to people who sat for fewer hours a day, but were not physically active. This suggests that physical activity is particularly important, no matter how many hours a day are spent sitting.

“There has been a lot of concern about the health risks associated with today’s more sedentary lifestyles,” says lead author Professor Ulf Ekelund, from the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, Norway and the University of Cambridge. “Our message is a positive one: it is possible to reduce – or even eliminate – these risks if we are active enough, even without having to take up sports or go to the gym.”

He adds: “For many people who commute to work and have office-based jobs, there is no way to escape sitting for prolonged periods of time. For these people in particular, we cannot stress enough the importance of getting exercise, whether it’s getting out for a walk at lunchtime, going for a run in the morning or cycling to work. An hour of physical activity per day is the ideal, but if this is unmanageable, then at least doing some exercise each day can help reduce the risk.”

Laziness don’t come cheap

Another paper published in the series estimated the global cost of physical inactivity, tallying up the total economic burden of the health problems that come with not enough exercise. A lack of regular physical activity is associated with a whole host of diseases and poor health outcomes including heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer – to name but a few. This leads to direct health care costs as well as losses in productivity and quality of life.

The authors conservatively estimated that physical inactivity cost health-care systems around $65 billion (NZD) worldwide in 2013. For New Zealand specifically, the price tag of physical inactivity was $167 million per year in terms of health costs. For Kiwis most of this cost falls on the public health system but the researchers estimated a tenth of the costs would comes directly from households.

In light of the findings, the study’s lead author, Dr Melody Ding from the University of Sydney, says. “Our study makes the economic case for a global response to promote physical activity to tackle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, with the aim of reducing health inequalities.”

You can listen to Melody talking more about the research with the Lancet Podcast here:

Increasing physical activity is an uphill battle
What is the next step?

So what we do?

In an review published as part of the Series, researchers examine dozens of physical activity projects from around the world, searching for the best policy and community tools to fight what they describe as a “global pandemic of physical inactivity.” New Zealand initiatives covered in the review included the Ministry of Health’s Green Prescription program and Waikato DHB’s Project Energize.

The authors identified some key factors that appear to make physical activity programmes succeed on the large scale. They say increasing levels of physical activity will require collaboration between schools, urban planning, transport, sports and recreation and the environmental sectors, and greater efforts should be made to actively monitor physical activity as a risk factor in clinical practice.

“Large-scale problems require large-scale solutions, and we need commitment from governments, as well as international organisations to tackle the global public health challenge of physical inactivity. Science and practice are providing important evidence, but now is the time for action,” says author Professor Rodrigo Reis, from Washington University in St Louis.

Writing in a related Comment article, Dr Pam Das, Senior Executive Editor and Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-chief of The Lancet say:

“The world needs to get serious about physical activity. And that means money—for capacity in public health departments to undertake adequate surveillance, cross sector partnerships, interventions, policy monitoring, and research, especially the cost-effectiveness of interventions. There is extensive evidence about the need for action to improve physical activity, what actions are most promising, and who needs to be involved. But capacity and funding remains insufficient because physical activity is not taken seriously enough to rise to the top of the funding priorities.”

According to the data from the Ministry of Health, in New Zealand:

  • around half of all adults (51%) are physically active for at least 30 minutes on 5 or more days per week
  • men are more likely (55%) than women (48%) to be physically active for at least 30 minutes on 5 or more days per week
  • 1 in 7 (14%) adults are physically active for less than 30 minutes per week