A new, first-of-its-kind study shows that 80 percent of adolescents around the globe aren’t getting enough physical activity—and the problem is particularly acute for girls.
The World Health Organization (WHO) previously set a goal to cut rates of teen inactivity by 15 percent worldwide before 2030. Recently, WHO completed a study to assess whether teens are making any progress; instead, what they found is cause for concern.
Using data from 298 surveys conducted in schools in 146 countries and territories, researchers captured information on over 1.6 million students. They found that levels of inactivity for girls haven’t budged since 2001, while boys’ levels of inactivity have fallen slightly, but are still not on track to meet the 15 percent reduction goal.
WHO’s guidelines recommend at least one hour of vigorous physical activity per day for kids in the 11 to 17 years age group.
Fiona Bull, program lead for physical activity in the department of health promotion at WHO and senior author of the study, says the findings are a call to action. “The boy-girl differences in inactivity show us we need to think carefully and innovatively about what girls and boys enjoy and want to participate in. The solutions are local, but this is a global problem.”
A number of countries, including the United States, have actually done better at getting their kids moving—but even the U.S. is not on track to meet the goals set for 2030.
Meanwhile girls in high-income East Asian countries, particularly South Korea, have fallen furthest behind in their physical activity. Experts say this may be related to increasing time spent on devices like phones and tablets, as well as intense pressure on adolescents to succeed academically.
Other countries that fared poorly were more likely to face poverty, malnutrition and little access to schools where consistent physical education is provided.
The study’s results highlight the need for more culturally relevant options and support for physical activity for all kids—especially girls.