Half of Adult Indians Physically Inactive, Women More Affected: Lancet Global Health Study Reveals Alarming Trend

Featured & Cover Half of Adult Indians Physically Inactive Women More Affected Lancet Global Health Study Reveals Alarming Trend

According to new research published in the Lancet Global Health, half of the adult population in India does not meet the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines for adequate physical activity. The study highlights that more women (57%) than men (42%) are physically inactive. Alarmingly, the prevalence of insufficient physical activity among Indian adults has escalated dramatically from 22.3% in 2000 to 49.4% in 2022.

If this trend continues unchecked, by 2030, 60% of the Indian population could be unfit and at increased risk of diseases associated with insufficient physical activity.

Importance of the Study

The WHO advises that all adults should engage in at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, or an equivalent amount of vigorous activity. Insufficient physical activity is defined as failing to achieve 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or a combination of both each week. According to the WHO, physical inactivity significantly raises the risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and strokes, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, and cancers of the breast and colon.

India ranks 12th highest in terms of insufficient physical activity among 195 countries. Globally, nearly one-third (31%) of adults—approximately 1.8 billion people—did not meet the recommended levels of physical activity in 2022. Dr. Rüdiger Krech, Director of Health Promotion at WHO, explained, “This is because of many factors, including changes in work patterns (move towards more sedentary work), changes in the environment, convenient transportation modes and changes in leisure time activities (that is more screen-based/sedentary activities).”

The highest rates of physical inactivity were found in the high-income Asia-Pacific region (48%) and South Asia (45%). Other regions showed levels of inactivity ranging from 28% in high-income Western countries to 14% in Oceania.

Why Should Indians Be Concerned?

Indians are genetically predisposed to developing non-communicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes about a decade earlier than others. Dr. K Srinath Reddy, a public health expert and leading cardiologist, noted, “Lack of physical activity means that you are just aggravating your existing risk factors. The WHO goals were set to reduce risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some types of cancer while improving mental health and a stronger immune system.”

He added, “Delayed urbanisation and industrialisation in some parts of the world have led to a sedentary and comfortable lifestyle, particularly South Asia (including India).”

Overcoming a Sedentary Lifestyle

Maitreyi Bokil, a Pune-based nutritionist and exercise physiologist, believes the biggest obstacle to fitness is the mental barrier that views exercise as just another chore in a busy day. She advises starting with enjoyable physical activities, such as watering plants or doing household chores. “Once you do that regularly, take the next step by finding a friend to go for a walk or join a community club. Having a pet is a great way to break a sedentary lifestyle,” she says.

For people with comorbidities, she recommends seeking medical advice on the frequency, intensity, and type of physical activity based on their endurance levels. Regarding diet, Bokil advocates for a rainbow-colored diet. “Everyone is aware of the importance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, but we don’t realize the importance of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. They make sure we get the energy out of carbs, protein, and fat. In addition, they help us fight inflammation caused due to erratic lifestyles. So everyone should focus on at least two vegetables (one cooked, one raw) for each meal and two whole fruits in a day,” she advises.

As for starting exercise at any age, Bokil cites research indicating that muscle gains can be made throughout life. “New neuro-muscle connections can be made at any age,” she says.

Gender Disparity in Physical Activity

Dr. Reddy noted that several studies within India have also shown low levels of physical activity among women, who often mistakenly believe that household chores constitute sufficient exercise. Cultural barriers also contribute to this inactivity, especially among middle-aged urban women. Indian women are faring worse than their counterparts in Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal, according to the study.

Dr. Fiona Bull, head of the WHO unit for physical activity, and epidemiologist Dr. Tessa Strain, attributed these figures to women bearing a larger share of home duties. “These combined with their caregiver role provide women lesser opportunities to prioritize themselves; they don’t have time and feel tired,” they said.

This comprehensive study underscores the urgent need for India to address its rising levels of physical inactivity. With a significant portion of the population at risk of developing serious health conditions, promoting a more active lifestyle through awareness and accessible initiatives is crucial.

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