A pooled analysis of 507 population-based surveys with 5·7 million participants has revealed that more than 30% of the global population does not meet the healthy levels of physical activity. This means, a major chunk of the population is not physically active as per the recommended levels set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
More than 40% of Indians are physically inactive and are at risk of life threatening diseases, the Lancet study has found.As per the WHO, insufficient physical activity is defined as not doing 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or an equivalent combination per week.
The global prevalence of insufficient physical activity has increased from 23.4% in 2000, 26.4% in 2010 to 31.3% in 2022, the study has revealed. Prevalence was 5 percentage points higher among females. The World Health Assembly (WHA) has set a target of a 15% relative reduction in insufficient physical activity between 2010 and 2030.

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“We conducted a sensitivity analysis to determine whether activity levels changed after March, 2020, when WHO announced COVID-19 as a pandemic, but found no evidence of a step change or non-linearity in trends in the included data collected during or after August 2020,” the WHO has said in the report.

The COVID-19 lockdowns led to significant physical inactivity, adversely impacting public health. As restrictions confined people to their homes, opportunities for regular exercise diminished, gyms closed, and outdoor activities were limited. The lockdowns disrupted routines, making it harder for people to maintain consistent exercise habits. This sudden shift to a more sedentary lifestyle had several detrimental effects.

Why can the human body not do without enough physical activity?

Lack of physical activity has profound and far-reaching consequences on the body, contributing to numerous chronic diseases and overall poor health. The dangers of physical inactivity are extensive and multifaceted, impacting nearly every system in the body. Incorporating regular exercise into daily routines is essential for maintaining physical, mental, and emotional health. Simple activities like walking, cycling, or engaging in a favorite sport can significantly reduce the risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle, promoting a longer, healthier, and more fulfilling life.
The first major impact of insufficient physical activity is on cardiovascular health. Regular exercise helps maintain a healthy heart and circulatory system by improving blood flow, reducing blood pressure, and lowering cholesterol levels. Without adequate physical activity, individuals are more prone to hypertension, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart attacks, and strokes. The heart muscle itself can weaken, leading to a decreased ability to pump blood efficiently, which can result in heart failure over time.
In addition to cardiovascular issues, physical inactivity is a significant contributor to obesity and metabolic syndrome. When there is an imbalance between calorie intake and expenditure due to a sedentary lifestyle, weight gain is inevitable. Excessive weight gain, particularly when coupled with a poor diet, can lead to metabolic syndrome—a cluster of conditions that includes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels. Metabolic syndrome significantly raises the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Exercise helps to manage weight, regulate blood sugar levels, and improve cholesterol profiles, thereby mitigating these risks.

The development of type 2 diabetes is another critical effect of a sedentary lifestyle. Physical inactivity increases insulin resistance, a condition where the body’s cells become less responsive to insulin, leading to elevated blood glucose levels. Over time, this can develop into type 2 diabetes. Regular physical activity helps the body use insulin more effectively, reducing blood sugar levels and preventing or managing diabetes. In contrast, a lack of exercise exacerbates insulin resistance and makes blood sugar control more challenging, increasing the likelihood of complications such as neuropathy, retinopathy, and cardiovascular disease.
Musculoskeletal issues are also exacerbated by a lack of exercise. A sedentary lifestyle weakens muscles and bones, leading to conditions such as osteoporosis (bone density loss) and sarcopenia (muscle loss). Weak muscles and bones increase the risk of falls and fractures, particularly in older adults. Joint health also suffers, with increased stiffness and pain contributing to conditions like arthritis. Regular weight-bearing and resistance exercises are crucial for maintaining musculoskeletal health, promoting bone density, and ensuring joint flexibility and muscle strength. Without these exercises, the musculoskeletal system deteriorates, leading to decreased mobility and independence.
The mental health implications of physical inactivity are equally concerning. Sedentary behavior negatively impacts mental health, increasing the risk of depression, anxiety, and stress. Exercise is known to boost endorphin levels, which enhance mood and overall sense of well-being. It also helps reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety by promoting neural growth, reducing inflammation, and fostering feelings of calm. Without regular physical activity, individuals miss out on these mental health benefits, potentially leading to increased prevalence of mental health disorders and a reduced quality of life.
Respiratory health is also affected by a lack of exercise. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to reduced lung capacity and efficiency. Regular exercise improves lung function and increases oxygen delivery to tissues. Without physical activity, the lungs and respiratory muscles weaken, leading to decreased endurance and increased susceptibility to respiratory diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This reduction in respiratory health can significantly impact overall vitality and daily functioning.

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Physical inactivity can also impair immune function, making individuals more susceptible to infections and diseases. Regular physical activity boosts the immune system, helping the body fight off illnesses more effectively. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to a weakened immune response, making individuals more prone to common colds, flu, and potentially even increasing the risk of certain cancers due to the immune system’s diminished capacity to detect and destroy abnormal cells.
Cognitive decline is another serious effect of physical inactivity. A sedentary lifestyle is linked to cognitive decline and an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Regular exercise promotes brain health by improving blood flow, reducing inflammation, and stimulating the growth of new neural connections. It helps maintain cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. Without regular physical activity, these cognitive functions can deteriorate, leading to decreased mental acuity and independence in later life.
Digestive health is also impacted by a lack of physical activity. Exercise stimulates intestinal contractions, aiding in efficient digestion and reducing the risk of constipation and other gastrointestinal issues. Physical inactivity can slow down the digestive process, leading to discomfort, bloating, and a higher risk of developing conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Regular movement is essential for maintaining a healthy digestive system and ensuring regular bowel movements.
Lastly, physical activity helps regulate hormones, including insulin, cortisol, and growth hormones. Lack of exercise can lead to hormonal imbalances, affecting everything from metabolism and mood to reproductive health. For instance, elevated cortisol levels due to stress and inactivity can lead to weight gain, especially around the abdomen, and disrupt sleep patterns. Hormonal imbalances can also affect fertility and menstrual cycles in women.

Why can’t women afford to skip regular exercise?

Females, like all individuals, benefit significantly from regular physical activity, but there are specific reasons why it is particularly important for women to engage in more physical activity.
Regular physical activity helps to regulate hormones, which is crucial for women. Hormonal fluctuations occur naturally during menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and menopause. Exercise can help stabilize hormones, reducing symptoms such as mood swings, fatigue, and irritability. For example, regular physical activity can alleviate premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and help manage menopause symptoms by balancing estrogen levels.

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Women are at a higher risk of osteoporosis, a condition characterized by weak and brittle bones. Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, jogging, and strength training, are particularly effective in increasing bone density and strength. Engaging in regular physical activity during adolescence and young adulthood is essential for building a strong bone foundation, while continued exercise in later years helps maintain bone health and prevent osteoporosis-related fractures.
Mental well-being is another critical area where physical activity plays a vital role. Women are more likely than men to experience anxiety and depression, partly due to hormonal changes throughout their lives. Regular exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural mood lifters, and reduces stress hormones like cortisol. This can help mitigate the symptoms of anxiety and depression, improve sleep quality, and boost overall mental health.
Weight management is also a significant concern. Women tend to have higher body fat percentages than men and may find it harder to lose weight due to biological differences in metabolism. Regular physical activity helps in maintaining a healthy weight by increasing calorie expenditure and boosting metabolic rate. This, in turn, reduces the risk of obesity-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and certain cancers.

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