Physical Inactivity is a Global Pandemic

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July 24, 2012
By Jim Sallis
Physical Inactivity is a Global Pandemic

Is this a historic moment for Active Living? Of course it is.

This week there were headlines in newspapers all over the world, reports on hundreds of TV news shows, and innumerable web reports spreading the news that physical inactivity is a global pandemic causing 10% of all deaths, similar to the consequences of smoking and obesity. This was the conclusion from a series of papers in The Lancet that was released this week. What do these papers mean for Active Living Research and others committed to improving physical activity?

What is the significance of these papers in The Lancet? The Lancet is the most influential medical journal in the world; it is cited more than any other. Given that very few papers on physical activity have ever been published in The Lancet, it is significant that they devoted a whole issue to "our" topic. Not only that, but they announced it with a press conference and a seminar led by the authors in London just days before the opening of the Olympic games. Thus, the launch of the special issue was carefully planned for maximum impact. 

The immediate impact of the special issue was unprecedented for the physical activity field. The scope of the coverage was difficult to appreciate because it was worldwide.  Again, this was not an accident, because the papers in the journal reported the estimated number of deaths caused by inactivity and the prevalence of inactivity in many countries representing every region of the world. When there are local data, the press is almost guaranteed to be interested.

But is The Lancet series a historic moment that will affect the physical activity field beyond a week or two? It could be and I certainly hope so. The series could create a widespread understanding that physical inactivity is a Big Deal that needs to be taken seriously. If The Lancet helps public health officials and elected leaders decide to invest more in physical activity research, surveillance, interventions, and policy actions, that will be great for public health. If citizens start asking what health departments are doing about physical activity and demanding better environments for activity, that will be even better. If millions of people decide it's a good idea for them to take that first walk, that will have immediate health benefits.  The physical activity field chronically suffers from extremely low investment and limited staffing, particularly in comparison to the health burden and health care costs caused by inactivity (Yancey et al., 2007; Yancey & Sallis, 2009). If The Lancet series of articles leads to a more appropriate investment in physical activity, that will be momentous for the field. 

The first physical activity epidemiology studies were conducted in London in the 1950s by Professor Jeremy Morris. Appropriately, the seminar on The Lancet physical activity papers was held in the Jeremy Morris Room at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. That is more than wonderful symbolism. It is one of many reasons why The Lancet series is likely to be historic for the physical activity field. These Lancet papers are the latest in a series of similarly significant events, such as: the first conference on physical activity and public health at CDC, the US Surgeon General's Report, the declaration of physical inactivity as a heart disease risk factor, the establishment of the Division of Physical Activity and Health at CDC, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's major investments in active living and childhood obesity, the official physical activity guidelines in the US and from WHO, the inclusion of physical activity in the WHO's global burden of disease reports, and the recent UN summit on Non-Communicable Diseases that identified physical activity as a priority solution. The American Public Health Association (APHA) has also joined the chorus by making the APHA Physical Activity Special Primary Interest Group a permanent APHA Section.

The physical activity field has been overdue for this spotlight. The epidemiology of the health effects is inarguable. We have objective and other validated measures. Most importantly, we have a wide variety of evidence-based interventions, most of which could and should be much more widely implemented. There is a skeletal staff of physical activity experts in each state that can be built upon. What we are lacking is a commitment from decision makers to put our research knowledge into action and with strong vocal public support for safe, attractive places to be active.

Consider using this opportunity to communicate to leaders in your community and state the need to treat physical inactivity as an urgent public health threat. Tell them we have a great deal of evidence about how to promote physical activity. Ask local leaders to support existing coalitions to implement changes in schools, parks, and communities to encourage people to be physical active and ensure they have places to be active. Point them to the National Physical Activity Plan and Active Living Research briefs. Volunteer to get involved in these efforts. Please let us know about your progress.

Below are highlights from The Lancet Series on physical activity.

  • Physical inactivity causes around 1 in 10 deaths worldwide, comparable to the impact of smoking. Abstract.
  • A third of adults and 4 out of 5 adolescents are at high risk of disease from failing to do recommended amounts of physical activity. Abstract.
  • Why are some people more physically active than others? Abstract.
  • Study identifies most effective interventions to promote physical activity from around the world. Abstract.
  • Mobile phone technology could encourage much greater numbers of people to become physically active. Abstract.
  • The pandemic of physical inactivity—a call for global action. Abstract.


Efforts may be successful only when balanced education is made obligatory by introducing validated course content implementation in schools and colleges.

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