Solving The Inactivity Epidemic

The many benefits of physical activity are well documented and have been supported by considerable research for a long time. But recently the focus has shifted to the detrimental effects of inactivity, most significantly the links between a sedentary lifestyle and health risks. In March 2014, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a study outlining the health care costs associated with prolonged sitting and inactivity in middle-aged women and made a number of observations. Firstly, physical inactivity can be blamed for between 1.5% and 3.0% of the total direct health care costs in developed countries such as the UK and USA, and despite the potential benefits to the health and economy of these countries, only about half the population meet the recommended levels of physical activity (Peeters, Mishra, Dobson & Brown, 2014). Further, the study concluded that the increased costs to healthcare were linked to increased inactivity regardless of weight.

The findings supplement the conclusion of other studies, which highlight the significant influence that inactivity can have on quality and length of life. Current estimates by the World Health Organisation suggest that 3.2 million people die around the world each year due to inactivity, increasing the risk for many of the most expensive medical conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and hip fractures as a result of falls. There are additional impacts on mental health, with prolonged periods of inactivity remaining one of the contributing factors of depression, and other research showing a link between sedentary lifestyles and dementia. One study by Plooij, Scherder and Eggermont (2012) found that in older people without dementia, there was a positive relationship between physical inactivity and pain. In older persons with dementia, physical inactivity could even cause additional pain. Other research has noted an increase in cognitive function after formerly sedentary older people participated in a walking intervention for six months.

The impacts of long-term inactivity on the body and mind are clear, and yet this is only a modern trend. Right up until the last century, humans were on the whole fairly active in their day-to-day lives. A study by E.M. Bedale in 1923 revealed that children from that time were 50% more active in comparison to modern children, participating in more than four additional hours of physical activity per day, and spending three hours less sitting down. Bedale remarked that the layout of the school buildings required a considerable amount of walking in order to get to and from classes and that students took part in a variety of outdoor work on the farm, the playing fields, and school grounds, highlighting the inclusion of physical activity within lessons. The daily timetable included several scheduled periods of exercise each day, regardless of weather. This may give some indication of different teaching methods used and how they related to over all physical activity in children. The decline in exercise has not been a sudden change, but a gradual one, with fewer children walking or cycling to school, and recent studies complaining that even in dedicated P.E lessons, too little time is spent moving.

It is a positive step that more focus is being put on addressing the effects of obesity and inactivity. Although we still have a long way to go in terms of reversing the trend. Some suggestions put forth have advocated the need for additional research into the economic costs of inactivity in order to bridge the gap between the problem and the reaction of public health policy (Pratt, Norris, Lobelo, et al, 2014). This study also noted the effectiveness of investments in cycling infrastructure in Europe.

Other organisations are beginning to think outside of the box, with the aim of developing new technology that solves both the problem of widespread inactivity and the challenges of being eco-friendly. SolePower, a shoe insole that allows the wearer to generate electricity as they move, has the added benefit of allowing individuals to store the electricity to charge personal gadgets later on (a nice financial incentive). A similar design by Siva called the Atom converts the kinetic energy in your bike into electrical power. For households or entire communities, the technology can be scaled up to provide human created power for projects such as outdoor gyms, bike powered city lights and mobile shelters, a bus, and even an entire house! Utilising human kinetic energy would indeed solve many problems in one hit, and rather paying money for a gym membership at the start of the year (which for many goes unused), perhaps people should be encouraged to buy some of the new technology that gives a return on investment financially, environmentally and to their health.


  • Bedale, E., Energy Expenditure and Food Requirements of Children at School. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Containing Papers of a Biological Character [serial online]. 1923:368. Available from: JSTOR Journals, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 22, 2014.
  • Peeters, G., Mishra, G., Dobson, A., Brown, W. Health Care Costs Associated with Prolonged Sitting and Inactivity. American Journal of Preventive Medicine [serial online]. n.d.;46(3):265-272. Available from: Science Citation Index, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 22, 2014.
  • Pratt, M., Norris, J., Lobelo, F., Roux, L., Guijing, W. The cost of physical inactivity: moving into the 21st century. British Journal Of Sports Medicine [serial online]. February 2014;48(3):171-173. Available from: SPORTDiscus with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 22, 2014.

Photo: Ralph Aichinger

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