An active problem for global health

Published online 19 September 2018

Physical activity in some Arab countries is among the lowest in the world.

Lara Reid

WHO: photographer Laurent Cipriani
The largest-ever analysis of global physical activity data has revealed that more than a quarter of adults do not engage in physical activity regularly, with women exercising less than men in most countries. 

In 2016, activity levels varied most widely between countries located in Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, more than half of adults were inactive, while this figure fell below 15 per cent in Jordan and Kyrgyzstan.

“This region also has some of the greatest gender differences,” says Regina Guthold, who conducted the analysis with co-workers at the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. “Globally, there were around eight percentage points difference between men and women. In Saudi Arabia and Iraq, this difference was higher than 20 per cent.” 

“The study should be a wake-up call for governments and health professionals in the Middle East. We need political will and supportive champions to encourage physical activity,” says Ali Mokdad, chief strategy officer for population health at the University of Washington, USA. “The region’s hot climate means we need accessible, affordable indoor sports facilities. It’s also crucial for women to have culturally acceptable places to exercise,” adds Mokdad, who was not involved in the study. 

The data for the study was pooled from surveys conducted in 168 developed and developing countries between 2001 and 2016. “We gained a detailed overview of emerging patterns, not just globally but within regions and countries,” says Guthold.

Guidelines suggest adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise (for example, walking briskly for 30 minutes five times a week) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. In 2016, insufficient activity levels in high-income countries were more than double those in low-income countries. On average, 42 per cent of women in high-income Western populations were classed as inactive. 

Globally, average inactivity levels remained static from 2001 to 2016. This indicates that the WHO target set by member states to reduce the sedentary behaviour by ten per cent by 2025 will not be met. 

Sedentary lifestyles put people at higher risk of serious, non-communicable health conditions including heart disease and diabetes. The study’s findings represent a potentially huge economic, health and wellbeing burden. Complex factors are at play, including technology, urbanization, cultural and religious beliefs, failures in infrastructure and safety issues.

“Governments and communities must act now, through a multi-sectoral approach, to tackle this,” says Guthold. “We need sustained, educational campaigns and equitable, safe access to places where all people can be active.”


Guthold, R., Stevens, G. A. et al. Worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity from 2001 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 358 population-based surveys with 1.9 million participants. Lancet Glob. Health 6, e1077–e1086 (2018).