UTHealth Researcher Calls for Global Action on Pandemic of Physical Inactivity

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Harold W. Kohl, III, PhD

Harold W. Kohl, III, PhD

The high prevalence and consequences of physical inactivity should be recognized as a global pandemic, according to a new publication by Harold W. Kohl, III, PhD, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health.

“Physical inactivity continues to be undervalued among people who can make a difference despite evidence of its health benefits and the evident cost burden posed by present levels of physical inactivity globally,” said Kohl, who is also with the school's Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living.

The recently published paper is the fifth and final paper in The Lancet “Series on Physical Activity” and outlines key strategies and resources needed to make physical activity a global public health priority. “This series emphasizes the need to focus on population physical activity levels as an outcome, not just decreasing obesity,” said Kohl, professor of kinesiology at The University of Texas at Austin.

The health burden of physical inactivity is substantial, according to Kohl. “Although regular physical activity is critical for weight control, it is equally or more important for lowering risk of many different chronic diseases such as heart disease, some cancers, osteoporosis and diabetes.”

According to Kohl, research on physical activity needs to be its own priority within public health research of non-communicable diseases.

Globally nearly one-third of persons 15 and over were insufficiently active in 2008 and approximately 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to insufficient physical activity, according to the World Health Organization. In 2008, the prevalence of insufficient physical activity was highest in the Americas and Eastern Mediterranean regions.

In the paper, the researchers argue for increased prioritizing of physical activity across multiple sectors of influence including health, transportation, sports, education and business. “This issue is of particular importance in countries with low-to-middle incomes, where rapid economic and social changes are likely to reduce the domestic, work and transport-related physical activity demands of daily life,” said Kohl. “Improved understanding of what works best in these nations will be key to developing national policies and action plans.

Kohl recommends a multi-sector and systems-wide approach to physical activity promotion to increase population levels of activity worldwide rather than efforts focused on individual health. “Traditional approaches, where responsibility for change has resided with the health sector, will not be sufficient,” said Kohl. “Improvements must happen at every level including planning and policy, leadership and advocacy and workforce training.”

In 2008, 25.4 percent of U.S. adults reported no leisure time physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). County estimates of leisure-time physical inactivity range from 10.1 percent to 43 percent in the United States. These rates reflect adults who report no physical activity or exercise other than at their regular job.

“The response to physical inactivity has been incomplete, unfocused, understaffed and underfunded compared with other risk factors for non-communicable diseases,” said Kohl. “This has put physical activity in reverse gear compared with population trends and advances in tobacco and alcohol control and diet.”

Kohl said Texas is one of a few states that have a plan to promote physical activity, Active Texas 2020. He led the development of the plan with the Governor’s Advisory Council on Physical Fitness. The Active Texas plan includes strategies and ideas that can be used by communities throughout the state. 

“Physical education in schools is still one of the most effective means promoting physical activity, particularly among children,” said Kohl. Texas Education Code requires elementary school students to receive at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity and 225 minutes of physical activity per two weeks for four of six semesters for middle school students.

Kohl was recently appointed to lead the Institute of Medicine’s committee on Physical Activity and Physical Education in the School Environment. He is on the President’s Council of Fitness, Sports & Nutrition Science Board. Kohl also led development of the 2008 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines.

Jade Waddy
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