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Daily physical activity

Physical activity is essential for long- and short-term physical and mental health and may improve academic and cognitive performance. It is associated with reduced anxiety and depression, and increased musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health among young people.

Findings demonstrate that adolescence is a key period for intervention, with overall activity levels declining between the ages of 11 and 15, especially among girls. Good physical-activity habits established in youth are likely to be carried through into adulthood. Low levels of physical-activity and excess sedentary behaviour in youth are associated with obesity in adult life, a serious public health issue with long-term costs globally.

The HBSC study has found family affluence to be an important predictor of young people’s health and participation in physical activities. In general, cost may restrict families’ opportunities to adopt healthy behaviours such as participating in fee-based sports and activities.

WHO has issued guidelines on physical activity, which some governments have adopted, for children to undertake at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA ) daily. The evidence suggests, however, that a significant proportion of adolescents do not meet this minimum standard.

Key findings from the study

  • Over all survey years taken together, 23.1% of boys and 14.0% of girls reported at least 60 min of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily.

  • Gender differences were significant in most countries across all age groups.

  • A significantly higher frequency of daily activity was found among adolescents aged 11 years (23.2%) than those aged 15 years (14.0%).

  • Adolescents from affluent families meet activity guidelines more often than adolescents from less well off families (19.8% vs. 16.3%).

For full results see ‘Secular trends in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in 32 countries from 2002 to 2010: a cross-national perspective’.

Policy recommendations

The multitude of conclusive findings over the past decade regarding physical activity as an important health determinant provides a clear and strong call to action. In particular, the need for a life course approach and a focus on young people is central, as physical activity levels during childhood and adolescence have been linked to health outcomes and health behaviour in later life.

It is important to monitor trends in physical activity for public health surveillance purposes as well as to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, and to inform future national and international priorities and policies. A cross-national perspective is especially important to shed further light into the overall time patterns of MVPA across different policy and cultural contexts.

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