A new study released this week that examines data on over 1 million adults in England suggests lack of physical activity affects the vast majority of adults and is storing up a big public health problem.
Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and led by the University of Bristol, the research shows nearly 8 in 10 adults do not hit government physical activity targets of moderate exercise at least 12 times in a 4-week period.
Overall, the researchers found 8% of adults in England who are capable of walking do not walk more than 5 minutes continuously in a 4-week period, while 46% had not walked for leisure for more than 30 minutes continuously.
They also said 88% had not been swimming, and 90% had not used a gym. They write:
"Around 20% of the population over the age 16 do minimal levels of physical activity."
Evidence suggests physical inactivity may cause as many deaths as smoking.
According to estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO), lack of exercise causes 1.9 million deaths a year worldwide and is responsible for over 1 in 10 breast cancers, colon cancers and cases of diabetes, plus over 1 in 5 cases of heart disease.
Links to affluence
The new study found links between inactivity and socioeconomic status. Adults on higher incomes with better education were the most likely to exercise, while those on the lowest incomes with the least education were the least likely.
There was also a significant link with local area deprivation. Local authorities with more sports facilities that had higher rates of new spending also had the most physically active residents.
The study also shows that warm weather tends to encourage people to become more physically active.
Study author Carol Propper, professor of economics at the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at Bristol University, told the press: "Physical inactivity is the most important modifiable health behavior for chronic disease so knowing who is physically inactive is important for designing cost-effective policy interventions." She added:
"These findings show physical inactivity in England has a large socioeconomic gradient with clear evidence of independent disparities by gender, ethnic group, age, geographic area and socioeconomic position."
The report concludes that financial as well as cultural barriers need to be lifted if high levels of physical inactivity in England are to be reduced - and that "the many current campaigns may not be reaching those who need them most."
The data for the study covers a million adults who took part in Sport England's annual Active People Surveys (APS).
The survey contains detailed information about socioeconomic position (education, income and local area deprivation), levels of physical activity and other factors such as local weather patterns and access to green spaces and sports facilities.
Recommendations for physical activity
The UK government guidelines for physical activity in adults (19 to 64 years) recommend:
- Adults should aim to exercise every day, and over a week this should total at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) in bouts of 10 minutes or more.
- One way to reach this goal is to do 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (for example, brisk walking, cycling) on at least 5 days a week.
- Alternatively, you can get the same benefit from 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity (for example, running, swimming) spread across the week, or from combining moderate and vigorous activity.
- In addition, on 2 days a week, the exercise should include activity that builds muscle strength (exercising with weights and lifting groceries count towards this).
- All adults should limit time spent being inactive or sedentary (for example, sitting for long periods watching television, using the computer or playing video games). Take regular breaks at work, or reduce a long bus or car journey by walking part of it.