Is Physical Activity a Human Right?

Hello from Day 2 at the International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health / Be Active 2012 in Sydney, Australia.

This morning I began my day by attending a session describing the recent series on physical activity published by The Lancet, which generated a tremendous amount of media attention earlier this year (such as this piece on the website of Time magazine, which for some reason included a picture of a headless person with obesity at the top of the article – a visual non-sequitur if I’ve ever seen one).  The series was created by 33 researchers from 16 countries, and built around the idea that physical activity is not just a healthy behaviour, but a human right (although they also pointed out that it should be a choice, not an obligation).

The series covered a range of issues, from the prevalence of physical activity/inactivity, to the number of deaths due to insufficient physical activity, and then looked at ways that we can more effectively promote physical activity at the population level.  Worldwide, they found that 1/3 of adults and 4/5 of adolescents are failing to get enough physical activity.  Inactivity is also responsible for 6-10% of all non-communicable diseases (it varies depending on the disease).  Thus inactivity causes roughly 5.3 million preventable deaths per year, which is on par with smoking.

The authors then looked at what interventions work for promoting physical activity (not a ton), and looked ahead to what we can do to help people become more physically active.  On this topic Dr Bill Kohl argued strongly that we need to stop focusing on the individual, and instead take a larger “systems” approach to improving physical activity at the population level.  He said explicitly that health behaviour ≠ public health, and said that the socio-ecological model (a common public health framework) is a horse that has been ridden as far as it can go (I look forward hearing what my friends in population health think of that sentiment).  Dr Kohl went on to argue that the factors influencing physical activity are extremely complex, and to simply focus on the individual (rather than the system in which the individual lives) could result in approaches that are ineffectual, or even counter-productive.

The series is available for free (although you unfortunately need to sign up for a username) via The Lancet website.  It is an excellent resource (especially for the information on the % of death and disease due to physical inactivity), and one worth checking out.


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4 Responses to Is Physical Activity a Human Right?

  1. julie says:

    Seems that making our communities more bike and pedestrian friendly could go a long way. Walking and biking to do errands is the path of least resistence for physical activity, but many places it’s suicidal. When my parents were looking to buy a house to raise kids, they skipped the nicer, newer town, because there were no sidewalks, and my mom was NOT going to chauffer us around. Now, I never drive anywhere under 3 miles, so while I don’t “exercise” every day, I do get my 10K+ steps, and often a bike ride or two as well.

  2. Monisha says:

    I would love to know a bit more about what the social-ecological model is, and how that is different from a systems approach? I come out of developmental psychology, where social-ecological and systems aren’t incompatible at all, and both would point right towards the prior commenter’s perspective on walkability/bikeability.

    • Travis says:

      Good question – and one two which I have no good answer (I know very little about either). If I can get any clarification on that I will let you know.

  3. bluehorserunning says:

    One of the many factors that appalled me about Bradley Manning’s solitary confinement was that he was forced to remain sedentary all day long, with about a 1/2 hour walking bout of ‘exercise’ a day.