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Sedentary lifestyles threaten European health

Press release issued: 25 April 2003

Six out of ten people in the UK are classified as having a sedentary lifestyle which could put their health at risk according to new research in the current issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology (IJE), edited in the University's Department of Social Medicine.

Six out of ten people in the UK are classified as having a sedentary lifestyle which could put their health at risk, according to new research into the lifestyles of men and women in the European Union, published in the current edition of the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Professor Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez and colleagues at the University of Navarra, Spain questioned more than 15,000 people in the 15 EU Member States about their physical activity, body weight and health.

They found that Sweden boasts the most active people in the EU and Portugal the least, with 90 per cent of Portuguese women classified as sedentary.

The UK is in sixth position in the list. The Republic of Ireland is second with just under half its men and two-fifths of its women classified as having a sedentary lifestyle.

A lower prevalence of sedentary lifestyle was found in Northern countries (especially Scandinavian countries) as compared with Mediterranean countries (see table below).

Percentage of sedentary men and women in the countries of the EU
  % with Low Energy Expenditure
  Men Women
Sweden 48.1 39.7
Ireland 47.6 40.6
Austria 48.5 45.5
Finland 53.6 44.0
Luxembourg 56.1 58.3
UK 59.4 59.4
Denmark 61.3 61.4
Netherlands 62.6 61.4
France 64.6 72.1
Italy 68.0 70.5
Greece 68.5 71.2
Germany 70.2 71.8
Spain 68.5 73.7
Belgium 67.5 75.9
Portugal 85.2 90.0

Sedentary people were defined in two ways:

  • those expending less than 10 per cent of their leisure time in activities involving less than four metabolic equivalents (these equivalents represent the ratio of energy expended during a physical activity to the metabolic rate of sitting quietly);
  • those who did not practice any leisure-time physical activity and who were also above the median in the number of hours spent sitting down during leisure time.

The report shows that sedentary lifestyles are prevalent across the European Union and warns of the health consequences of this large-scale inactivity, especially as people with low levels of physical activity were also more likely to be smokers and to be obese.

Professor Ebrahim, co-editor of the IJE, said: "This research shows that the many and varied health consequences of sedentary lifestyles and obesity are still emerging. Studies such as this are vital for assessing comprehensively the risks of inactivity. The large variation across Europe suggests that physical activity is modifiable. If we are to reduce inactivity levels, finding the factors that determine the level of inactivity within a country's population is crucial."

Paper: Jose Varo, Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez, Jokin de Irala-Estevez, John Kearney, Micheal Gibney and J Alfredo Martinez: 'Distribution and determinants of sedentary lifestyles in the European Union' IJE 2003, Vol 32, No 1 pp 138-146

The International Journal of Epidemiology is a key journal in the field of epidemiology and public health, published six times per year by Oxford University Press. It is edited at the Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, which is a leading centre for epidemiology, health services research and public health in the UK and was one of only three to be awarded the top 5* grade in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise.

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