As obesity becomes a bigger and bigger (literally!) problem throughout the world, healthy eating and physical activity have become primary government concerns. A 2012 study by The Lancet analysed the effects of physical inactivity on health; the research demonstrates a correlation between countries with higher per capita income and lower rates of physical activity. Indeed, the following list largely consists of countries with low income per capita that have more active lifestyles due to the exerting physical nature of their everyday work.
In order to measure the ‘fitness’ of a nation, researchers considered the physical activity undertaken by citizens of 122 different countries, to estimate how much illness could be averted if physical inactivity was eliminated. All of the countries on our list are so physically active that it’s estimated that if people in these nations became any more active, their life expectancy would only increase by less than 0.3 years – suggesting that these nations are already in peak physical form, fitness-wise at least. This contrasts sharply with the world’s least active country – Malta – where life expectancy would be expected to increase by 1.12 years if people begin exercising more.
So, what is it that is keeping these countries so physically active? And how can lazier countries learn from them? The following countries are ranked by how much their life expectancy would increase, if they were to increase physical activity. The lower the number, the more likely these countries are to be at their maximum capacity for physical activity.
10. Netherlands – 0.29
Oil shortages in 1973-1974 were a hidden blessing for the Netherlands, bringing about a cycling craze that has only grown ever since. Shortages encouraged the Dutch government to begin restricting motor vehicles in its towns and cities and to focus on alternate forms of transport such as the bicycle. Today in the Netherlands, cycling accounts for 27% of all trips nationwide, and for 59% of trips within cities. Almost 40% of the population either walks or cycles to work daily.
This has hugely positive effects on national health and environment, as well as adding to the Dutch sense of community by removing the depersonalised autos from the streets. The country’s flatness is a great incentive to cycle, and it’s still highly encouraged by the government. The country has developed complex and efficient cycle path networks to make cycling as easy and as safe as possible. As one of only two European – indeed, western – nations on our list of fittest countries, it seems like the rest of the western world should aim to follow the Netherlands’ lead by getting on their bikes.
9. Burma – 0.27
In Burma, the largest country in South East Asia, a high level of physical activity is not so much associated with sporting as with a way of life. Burma is extremely rich in natural resources but its level of development is very low.
A lack of an educated workforce means that workers have no choice but to do the difficult, hard-labour jobs rather than the tertiary work. As a result, the country’s resources are mostly controlled by foreign companies which employ locals for manual labour. These jobs tend to be very physical: for example, the country’s major agricultural resource is rice, which represents approximately 60% of the country’s total agricultural land, so a large proportion of Burmese women work in the rice paddies. The country is also rich in precious stones (with 90% of the world’s rubies coming from Burma) and oil, and produces 80% of global teak wood, which means that a lot of men are employed in physically strenuous jobs.
8. Mongolia – 0.24
With 30% of its population still nomadic or semi-nomadic, physical activity lies at the heart of the Mongolian lifestyle and tradition. Most of these nomads are herders who breed livestock for a living.
Mongolia relies mainly on its minerals which have boosted its economy. This industry provides jobs for a large proportion of Mongolians, explaining their high level of physical activity. However, the Mongolian environment is currently in a state of crisis, facing deforestation, overgrazed pastures and soil erosion which poses a threat to these activities. With the consequent gradual urbanisation taking place, health remains a priority for the government that wants to remain a physically active country. The government promotes a healthy diet and physical activity too its people through campaigns and educational talks in schools nationwide.
7. Cambodia – 0.24
The largest Cambodian industries are textiles and tourism, while agricultural activities remain the main source of income for those in rural areas, with 57.6% of Cambodians working in physically strenuous agricultural jobs.
The Cambodian government is health-aware and has implemented policies emphasising the importance of a quality diet and regular physical activity, using sports personalities and the media to get the point across. At a more local level, it is common for community leaders to organise walking groups; and through tradition and education Cambodians have a good general awareness of what constitutes a health lifestyle. Football and the martial arts are particularly encouraged from childhood.
6. Greece – 0.23
Life expectancy in Greece is of 80.3 years old. This is a year above the OECD average and among the highest in the world. As the birthplace of the Olympic Games, the Greek government takes physical activity to heart. From a young age children are geared towards sports. Since the mid-2000s and the beginning of the recession, debt-ravaged Greece has also increased its every day physical exercise out of necessity: the gulf between bike and car sales was more pronounced in Greece than anywhere else in Europe, with a money-conscious population opting for the gas-free option. In February of this year, the Greek government embarked on its European Union presidency by holding a conference addressing nutrition and physical activity as primary social concerns, and developing strategies for the diminution of child obesity across the EU.
5. Malawi – 0.21
The landlocked south east African country of Malawi ranks as one of the world’s least developed countries. However, it is one of the most physically active countries in the world. With 90% of Malawians living in rural areas, agriculture accounts for 80% of the labour force and 37% of GDP. Thus, a large proportion of the population undertakes strenuous physical activity daily – primarily cultivating maize, cassava and tobacco. In 2006, the late Malawian president Bingu Mutharika boosted harvests by setting up a program of fertilizer subsidies designed to revitalize agricultural land and boost crop production, stimulating the industry.
4. Benin – 0.19
Benin’s economy is underdeveloped and heavily dependent on agriculture and cotton (which accounts for 40% of the country’s GDP). As a result, a large number of this West African country’s people work in the production of textiles, maize, rice, peanuts, cashews, yams, palm products and cocoa beans. Most employment and income come from subsistence farming meaning that each family is self-dependent in farming enough food to sustain itself. This means huge physical efforts for the Beninese on a daily basis.
3. Comoros – 0.17
Half of the population of the Archipelago of Comoros lives beneath the poverty line. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. Agriculture is the leading sector of the Comoran economy, and with a high unemployment rate of 14.3%, people are glad of any work they can find. As a result, the population density is very high in agricultural areas. Farmers here work hard for survival through fishing, hunting, forestry and cultivation. This ‘survival of the fittest’ approach to agriculture guarantees an optimum amount of physical activity in the country’s people, but goes far beyond matters of health to that of survival. Excess agricultural exploitation poses worrying environmental problems for the future where natural resources are at risk.
2. Mozambique – 0.14
As of 2001 Mozambique’s average GDP growth per year has been among the world’s highest. Despite this, however, Mozambique ranks as one of the lowest when it comes to GDP per capita, development and life expectancy. Agriculture is its saving grace: 77% of the Mozambican workforce is employed in the agricultural sector. It provides livelihoods for the vast majority of over 23 million inhabitants. It is this flourishing agriculture that presents promise for the country’s future development. Mozambicans are at an optimum peak of physical activity through their daily activities of fishing, producing timber and copra or cultivating cashew nuts, tobacco, tea, cotton, coconuts and citrus fruit.
1. Bangladesh – 0.10
Bangladeshis are exceptionally active due to the country’s primary industries which require physical labour. Most Bangladeshis earn a living through agriculture, primarily cultivating rice and jute but also maize and vegetables. Other examples of strenuous jobs in Bangladesh on which the economy relies are shipbuilding, the huge Bangladeshi textile industry, and recent developments in gas and coal mining. Information regarding physical activity is still scarce in Bangladesh, as it’s far from being a primary concern. However, it is gradually becoming an issue in urban areas where ‘desk work’ is more common, gym culture is non-existent and exercising outside is constrained by space restrictions and the warm climate. Nonetheless, Bangladesh is the number one most active country on our list – it remains to be seen if this continues as the country’s developing economy continues to grow.