Everyday idleness is an ever-growing concern. In a world where so much can be done from the comfort of an armchair or even your own bed, the vital importance of physical activity is often cast aside. Although today the issue is most prominent in highly developed nations, it’s not exclusive to westerners and has become an issue in a diverse variety of countries across the world for differing reasons. We’ve looked at the most active countries in the world – those are generally countries wherein physical labour is a crucial part of survival – but at the other end of the scale we have those nations that simply aren’t moving much.
Globalisation has made it possible to buy and eat processed foods across the planet, contributing to obesity as a world problem. For the past decade, this worrying condition has been brought under the spotlight but the problem is typically associated more with food than with exercise: while governments are implementing policies and systems in attempts to regulate the nutritional aspect of the problem, less has been done to promote physical activity as crucial to a healthy lifestyle. Some governments are starting to realise just how expensive health care is going to become if this inactive lifestyle continues and are taking action whilst others simply have bigger fish to fry.
In 2012, renowned medical journal The Lancet released a study measuring inactivity through tests and surveys spanning 122 countries. The following list has been drawn up according to The Lancet used World Health Organisation data to rank the 10 least physically active countries from lowest to highest. All of these 10 nations have a rate of inactivity exceeding 60%. The figures apply to the general adult population over the age of 15, but further sections of the report reveal that child inactivity is a problem on the rise and that women of lower economic standing are the most affected among the adult population.
Rapid urbanisation, the rise of computer culture, a simple lack of motivation, poor government incentive. . . the reasons for inactivity vary between countries. So which countries are the most slothful? What’s stopping them from getting out and getting active and what are their governments doing to counter the problem, if anything at all?
10. Malaysia – 61, 4% inactive
For the past three decades, heart disease has been the primary killer in Malaysia. A large number of these diseases are caused by the population’s lack of physical activity. The Lancet estimates that 61.4 per cent of Malaysians above the age of 15 are physically inactive. The National Heart Institute (IJN) has been addressing the problem seriously by organising talks, sporting events and campaigns to emphasise the importance of physical activity, as well as encouraging schools to familiarise children with the health benefits of regular exercise alongside a healthy diet.
9. United Arab Emirates – 62, 5% inactive
According to the World Health Organisation, 78% of children in the United Arab Emirates are not getting the amount of physical activity recommended to lower risks of cardiovascular disease and keep them healthy. This inactivity is linked to an excessive amount of screen time – in front of a TV, computer or cinema screen – and an excessive indulgence in junk food. This presents a serious threat to the country’s future as the young population becomes increasingly likely to develop health problems and present a drain on the nation’s healthcare system. The Middle East is currently considered the least active region for young adults and for women worldwide. Given the inescapable truth that the problem is growing, a forum was held in Dubai in February of this year to address it, introducing a seven-step program with the goal of reducing inactivity levels by 10% come 2025. The program targets public education, transport policies, community programs, urban design, healthcare and sports awareness.
8. United Kingdom – 63, 3% inactive
The United Kingdom ranks as the third least active European country, and eighth in the world. This is a serious health threat to the general adult population (with women less active than men) and to children who suffer increasingly from obesity. Recent studies have revealed that this is also a burden on the economy, with the estimated cost of physical inactivity held at £1.06 billion to the National Health Service. In 2011 the first time, physical activity guidelines were published by UK Chief Medical Officers in an effort to introduce a new standard of exercise. With the London Olympic games in 2012, it was hoped that enthusiasm for sport would pick up. However, data collected by the Active People Survey (APS) revealed that little has changed other than slight increases in participation in athletics and cycling.
7. Kuwait – 64, 5% inactive
Rapid urbanisation in Kuwait is considered the primary cause of high levels of inactivity in the country. Shifting to an urban lifestyle has brought about low levels of physical activity in people of all ages and this has encouraged an escalation of obesity and disease rates, particularly coronary heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. The Kuwaiti government has, however, been proactive about the situation, holding a series of discussions on the topic of physical activity in Kuwait and neighbouring countries in an effort to generate awareness of its importance among health authorities.
6. Micronesia – 66, 3% inactive
Obesity has become a major problem for the Federated States of Micronesia, mainly due to nutritional habits. Whereas Micronesians used to rely solely on local food and habits, the development of a wage-based economy has caused a turn towards imported, packaged foods from developed countries. This turn towards a less healthy nutritional system has not been compensated by a rise in physical activity – on the contrary, it has declined. As weight becomes more and more of a problem, action is being taken to protect local produce. However, it seems necessary to promote exercise, too, in order to regain a healthy lifestyle here.
5. Argentina – 68, 3% inactive
With an internationally renowned football team, Argentina is often associated with sports. However in reality, a shocking proportion of its population is deemed inactive. The population group most affected is cited to be women of low economic status but men and children are also heavily affected. Since 2008, the Argentine government has been working to counter this inactivity by introducing policies to improve and encourage daily activity, sporting and a healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, recent studies from Argentina suggest that physical inactivity combined with an unhealthy diet may increase the risk of multiple sclerosis, further alerting the government of how crucial it is to turn the situation around.
4. Serbia – 68, 3% inactive
With 58% of all non-communicable diseases in Serbia attributed to cardiovascular disease and 3% to diabetes, it is clear that physical inactivity is responsible for a large proportion of illness and deaths in Serbia. Although the Serbian government has taken action in raising awareness of the importance of a healthy diet, it has only recently begun to focus attention on promoting an active lifestyle, apparently to an insufficient extent. Inactivity among women in Serbia reaches a shocking 76%, exceeding any other country.
3. Saudi Arabia – 68, 8% inactive
Over the past thirty years, the Saudi lifestyle has changed drastically, bringing about a decline in the population’s physical activity. For example, the rise of screen culture in Saudi Arabia has played a part in instilling nation-wide inactivity. In the Middle East, the expected increase in mortality as a result of ischemic heart disease in 2020 compared to 1990 is estimated to be the highest in the world with an expected 146% increase for women and a 174% increase for men. This promises to be expensive for the kingdom’s public health service if the problem isn’t combatted as a matter of priority.
2. Swaziland – 69% inactive
One of the smallest countries in Africa, Swaziland is also the continent’s least active. The country is critically affected by HIV/Aids, so health policies are principally geared towards managing the epidemic. As a result, the problem of physical inactivity is not the primary concern. With a low budget and a depleted infrastructure, it is a challenge for the Swazi health system to provide care, let alone to develop campaigns emphasising the importance of physical exercise.
1. Malta – 71, 9% inactive
Almost one-fifth of deaths on the island of Malta are attributed to the state of physical inactivity in which a shocking 71, 9% of the country’s population lives. The trend towards inactivity was blamed largely on a heavy reliance on cars and an increase in the nation’s usage of computers. In February of 2012, after The Lancet published its report, the Maltese government wrote up a strategy with the aim of halting and reversing this obesity crisis by combining economic instruments motivating healthy lifestyle choices (such as food subsidies and employer tax incentives) with more local initiatives aimed at regional health-sector services, communities, schools and workplaces. Time will tell whether these policies have been effective in bringing about change in the most inactive nation in the world.