According to a study just released by the World Health Organization (WHO), the use of mobile devices is making adolescents, well, less mobile. They are sitting for longer periods and are increasingly unlikely to leave the house. The study, which was funded by the WHO and conducted in collaboration with two universities, surveyed a sample of 1.6 million people in 145 countries from 2001 to 2016 and found that 80 percent of those aged 11 to 17 failed to meet its guidelines for daily physical activity. Worse, there has been virtually no improvement overall in 15 years, with only a few exceptions. Awareness campaigns seem to have had no effect, and insecurity on the streets might be inducing adolescents to stay indoors.
The WHO study shows that 85 percent of girls and 78 percent of boys around the world don't meet recommendations for at least one hour of physical activity per day, and the gender gap widened during the 2001/16 period in 73 percent of the countries surveyed. The biggest gaps were found in the U.S. and Ireland, with a difference of more than 15 percentage points.
Moreover, there is no significant connection between a country's GDP and the rate of inactivity among adolescents, although this is partly linked to the fact that the study covered not only sports but all other kinds of physical activity, including physical education, active play and recreation, active domestic chores, walking, cycling and other types of active transportation. In many low-income countries, children have to walk long distances to go to school.
In fact, the country with the lowest rate of physical inactivity is an impoverished one: Bangladesh with 66.1 percent (63.2% for boys, 69.2% for girls). India is also in a relatively good spot, coming in seventh position with a 73.9 percent rate of insufficient inactivity. The WHO relates their good performance with the countries' strong focus on national sports like cricket.
On the other hand, China, another country with a big population that has become the world's second-largest consumer of sporting goods, scored 79th on the chart with a rate of 84.3 percent in 2016, marginally better than the 85.4 percent rate that the researchers had recorded for it in 2001.
Flourishing South Korea, which was last year the seventh-largest sporting goods market in the world, according to NPD (see our previous issue), remained in 146th place at the bottom of the list with a rate of 94.2 percent (91% for boys, 97.2% for girls), even worse than the 92.7 percent rate registered 15 years earlier.
We think that the discrepancy observed in Korea can be related to heavy spending on electronics coupled with ample purchases of sports shoes and apparel that are used for fashion rather than sports. The U.S., where the internet was born, held a low-middle rank at around 72 percent in 2016. The situation was worse in Australia in terms of physical inactivity with a rate of 89 percent.
The chart on page 5, where we have put in boldface the countries that we covered in our European retail charts last month, is a clear indication for the European sporting goods industry, the European Commission and the member governments that much remains be done in the more developed countries of Western Europe to stimulate physical activity among youngsters through sports and in other ways.
In 2001, Italy came in 120th place on the chart with an insufficiency rate of 86.7 percent of the young population, and the rate increased to a more dangerous level of 88.6 percent in 2016, leading the country's global ranking to fall to the 137th spot, indicating that it made less progress than other countries higher up on the list.
As in 2011, France performed a little better than Italy in 2016 with a rate of 87.0 percent, but it went up from 86.2 percent 15 years earlier. It was followed again by Switzerland with a score of 84.7 percent. A sharply increased 84.5 percent rate of physical inactivity, up from 83.2 percent in 2001, led Denmark to overtake Portugal, Norway and Belgium in terms of inactivity during the 15-year period. The best performances were found in 2016 in Ireland (71.8%), Spain (76.6%), Austria (77.8%), the Netherlands (80.2%), Belgium (83.5%) and Germany (83.7%).
As compared to 2001, the situation improved in the U.S., the world's largest market for sporting goods, where the insufficiency rate stood at 75.7 percent of the young population at the time. The rate also declined from 75.4 percent in Ireland, from 79.1 percent in Spain, from 79.4 percent in Austria, and from 80.4 percent in the Netherlands. It improved also in Norway, going down to 83.5 percent from 83.7 percent in 2001, as well.
The situation deteriorated in some other European countries. Between 2001 and 2016, the rate increased to 83.7 percent from 83.5 percent in Germany, to 84.7 percent from 83.6 percent in Sweden, to 83.5 percent from 83.7 percent in Norway and to 84.3 from 84.2 percent in Portugal. It remained flat at 83.5 percent in Belgium.
Aside from Ireland and the U.S., the biggest decreases in physical inactivity among boys were observed in Bangladesh, Singapore, Thailand and Benin. For girls, a lower rate of growth was recorded in Singapore, and an increase was found in Afghanistan.
The authors of the study make a number of recommendations. They pointed out that strong political will and action can address the problem that four out five adolescents don't experience the enjoyment and the social, physical and mental health benefits of regular physical activity.
If the trends observed in the study continue, it will be impossible to achieve the global target of a 15 percent reduction in insufficient physical activity, set by all the countries participating in the World Health Assembly in 2018.
The WHO is aiming to almost double the worldwide rate of active adolescents to 30 percent by 2030. To this end, it will be designing campaigns to inspire girls to take up sports, induce organizations to set the conditions for this sort of activities – by providing separate dressing rooms, for example – and inform the public on nutrition.
The study has been published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health Journal.