The worldwide health threat of physical inactivity: Things I learned in Brazil at the International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health

Elske Stolte  by Elske Stolte / Reading Time: 6 Minutes /

Fresh off the airplane, still buzzing from the recent experiences in Rio de Janeiro and the lack of sleep I start writing this blog. I attended the International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health where I presented a poster about the online physical activity intervention which is part of my research project. I learned a lot at the congress about the current state of affairs of physical activity research. Physical inactivity is a worldwide health threat. In this blog I will share some of the knowledge I gained at the congress about worldwide physical activity research.

Physical inactivity is not a luxury problem

That physical inactivity is not just a problem of well-developed rich countries was one of the biggest eye openers for me during this congress. The emphasis on less developed countries in the program had somewhat surprised me. In countries where poverty, crime and pollution are major problems along with diseases such as HIV I would expect physical activity levels of the population to be very low on the list of priorities. However, non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes are rising problems in these countries and effect public health in a major way. The importance of physical activity for public health worldwide has been illustrated by The Lancet with a special series on the topic.

More of the same is not enough

The ICPAPH congress has an overarching topic. Last time it was ´the elephant in the room´, which stood for the required awareness raising of the physical inactivity problem and was achieved in the form of The Lancet series. This time the overarching message was ´more of the same is not enough´. There is a big gap between what researchers are doing and what public policy makers need, as explained by Public health professor Adrian Bouman in his key note. There has been a substantial increase in research on the topic of Physical (in)activity, but the focus has not been optimal. Researchers need to take into account the big picture of public health instead of just focusing on tiny subsamples and stressing that more research is needed to answer even more questions. An effective intervention trial is nice but public policy is key when making real world changes to public health. There is a need for more collaboration between researchers and policy makers, this point was also illustrated by the fact that the conference was almost solely attended by researchers.

Brazil cares about physical activity

Brazil is one of the countries that has realized the impact of inactivity on its population and is taking a leading approach in tackling this issue by working on community programs and public resources for physical activity (see the article ‘Policies to promote physical activity in Brazil’ of The Lancet series). This was visible for instance at the beach where you find a wide boulevard for walking and running, a cycling lane and workout stations where people can stretch and do muscle exercises (which are used regularly). You will see many people jogging along the beach in the morning and afternoon, but even in the middle of the day ploughing through the sand in the burning sun.

Outdoor Gym in Rio de Janeiro
Outdoor Gym in Rio de Janeiro

Dutch infrastructure is a luxury

Attending presentations from people from all over the world who are working on the topic of physical activity promotion also made me more aware of the luxury position of the Netherlands where I live and conduct my research. In one presentation a video was shown of a cycling path that had been improved due to the Connect2 program in England. This program aimed to increase walking and cycling to work by improving the infrastructure. The presenter commented that ´depending on your frame of reference this is an excellent or quite bad example of cycling infrastructure but the point is that the situation has improved a lot´. England is able to improve its infrastructure but I can imagine many developing countries have much more pressing safety issues to deal with first. In Rio de Janeiro for instance, the nice cycling lanes next to the beaches do not always connect to the next neighborhood. Between some of the neighborhoods you see some very dangerous situations where cyclist are on a very narrow two way cliff road with many curves and busy traffic. The Netherlands on the other hand has an excellent infrastructure for cycling and walking, we have sidewalks and separate cycling lanes almost everywhere and the situation is still being improved. The Netherlands is also third in the list of the prevalence of cycling to work just behind China and Denmark. This obviously has an influence on the focus of health promoters. I can afford to focus on people’s motivation for physical activities as major environmental barriers have already been tackled mostly, while in many countries it might be more important to focus on improving the infrastructure and safety.

Standing tables at the conference
Standing tables at the conference

Walking the walk and using standing tables

It is important to walk the walk and not only to talk the talk. Especially on a research congress it can be difficult to be active enough during the day. So on the first day we had a half hour walk along the wonderful beach promenade (the so-called “agita mundo walk”). Also in every conference room at the back some tables for standing where provided. These standing tables were a great success and should be introduced to all conferences.

In Brazil, I learned how my research project fits into a worldwide context of the pressing issue of physical inactivity and its health consequences. My work focusses on a tiny piece of a puzzle that fits into the context of the global effort to increase physical activity in the world population. Also, I learned that as a researcher I should look for ways to collaborate with policy makers to be able to influence public health.


Elske Stolte MSC is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology. Her research revolves around motivating older adults to be more physically active. By means of an intervention trial she studies the effects of prompting on motivational factors and physical activity.

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