July 21 (UPI) -- With the Olympics starting this week in Japan, researchers from around the world on Wednesday published a series of studies in the Lancet calling for urgent action to boost physical activity among young people and get them moving more.
An estimated 80% of school-going adolescents worldwide do not meet the World Health Organization's physical activity guidelines, according to the new research.
"We desperately need to explore both the short- and long-term consequences physical inactivity has on adolescents, and identify effective ways of promoting increases in physical activity, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic," study co-author Esther van Sluijs said in a press release.
Forty percent of adolescents worldwide never walk to school and 25% sit for more than three hours per day, with up to 60% of those living in Europe spending two hours or more a day watching television and up to 50% devoting two hours or more a day to playing video games, the researchers said.
In the United States, physical activity levels among adolescents age 10 to 17 decline with age and remain well below the 60 minutes per day recommended by the WHO for this age group, the data showed.
"Adolescents make up nearly one quarter of the world's population, and by ensuring that they grow up in social and physical environments that are supportive of physical activity, we are helping to change their health right now [and] improve their future health," said van Sluijs, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge in England.
More than 5 million people globally die each year due to lack of physical activity, according to the WHO.
Lack of exercise has been linked with an increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, and leads to at least $54 billion per year in direct health care costs globally, according to the agency.
The benefits of exercise include improved heart health, muscle strength, physical function and mental health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Efforts to improve physical activity levels in young people have been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, with social distancing measures confining many to their homes and away from activities such as physical education classes at school.
In addition, physical activity can provide a range of physical and mental health benefits for the 1.5 billion people worldwide living with a physical, mental, sensory or intellectual disability, according to the authors of a separate study included in the series.
However, adults living with disabilities are up to 62% less likely to meet WHO physical activity guidelines and are at higher risk of serious health problems related to inactivity, such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity, the researchers said.
The WHO, much like the CDC, recommends that all adults, regardless of disability status, engage in at least 150 minutes per week.
"Interest in disability sport continues to grow and could be a key driver in promoting more empowerment, participation and inclusion for people living with disabilities," study co-author Kathleen Martin Ginis said in a press release.
"But we also need more research focused on people living with disability as well as cohesive, targeted policies and guidelines [to] allow for full and effective participation in physical activity," says Martin Ginis, director of the Center for Chronic Disease Prevention at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
The delayed 2020 Summer Olympics, which begins this week in Tokyo, provide an opportunity for governments worldwide to promote the health benefits of exercise, according to the authors of a third paper in the series.
However, their review suggests that the Olympic Games had a minimal impact on physical activity in host cities, with no measurable change in participation in sports either immediately before or after the events, they said.
Based on their findings, the researchers call for pre- and post-event planning and partnerships between local and national governments and the International Olympic Committee designed to increase physical activity and improve public health.
"The Olympics and other mass sporting events are a missed opportunity to change health and physical activity at the population level, not only in the host city or country but around the world," co-author Adrian Bauman said in a press release.
"The Olympics provide a global stage to get people interested in and excited about physical activity. The challenge is how to translate that enthusiasm into sustained public health programs that are achievable and enjoyable for the general public," said Bauman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney in Australia.