Around 63% of girls do not do the levels of physical exercise recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). (Photo: Caley Vanular/Unsplash)
A study involving researchers from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the Manresa Campus of the University of Vic - Central University of Catalonia (UVic-UCC) concludes that 63% of adolescent girls do not do the recommended amount of physical exercise.
Socio-economic circumstances, cultural influence and the encouragement of sport in the family are determining factors in a sedentary lifestyle.
These conclusions are part of the DESKcohort project, which monitors female adolescents at school to analyse their behaviour and other significant social issues.
Female adolescents do not do enough physical exercise, as two out of three girls aged between twelve and eighteen do not meet the recommendations for daily physical exercise issued by the World Health Organization (WHO). That is one of the main conclusions of the first wave of the DESKcohort project, which involved researchers from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the Manresa Campus of the University of Vic - Central University of Catalonia (UVic-UCC).
In specific terms, this study concludes that around 63% of girls do not do the recommended levels of physical exercise, while the percentage for boys is 40%. "The physical and social environment surrounding women and girls has a greater influence on whether they do physical exercise," explained Marina Bosque and Laura Esquius, professors and researchers in the UOC's Faculty of Health Sciences, and Rémi Gontié, a researcher from the UVic-UCC's Manresa Campus.
The DESKcohort project is a study in which adolescents aged between twelve and eighteen at schools in Central Catalonia are monitored over a period of time to study their behaviour and other relevant aspects that may affect various social facets of their life, education and health.
"In adolescence, physical exercise improves physical fitness and prevents blood pressure problems and obesity, as well as improving bone health, cognitive and academic outcomes, and also mental health. Playing sports also has benefits for learning and socializing, such as learning to compete, and to work as a team," pointed out Esquius.
Factors influencing physical exercise
The main factors that can influence whether adolescents do physical exercise include aspects such as their socio-economic circumstances and where they live. "The data show that the town or neighbourhood in which young people live may influence how much physical exercise they do. Having readily accessible sports facilities or transport to reach those facilities is something that encourages people to participate; if not, it acts as a barrier," said Bosque.
The study also found that adolescents from the most disadvantaged families are the least likely to comply with the recommendations for physical exercise. This may be related to various barriers to access to physical exercise, such as a lack of funds for taking part in extracurricular activities, difficulties in travelling to sports centres, and issues related to participating in team sports, such as feeling rejected by the group. Likewise, in families in a more difficult socio-economic situation, the parents are more likely to do shift work at night, at weekends or on holidays. "This means that older brothers and sisters have to take care of the younger ones, and so they can't spend their free time doing leisure activities," said Gontié.
In addition to all these aspects, cultural traditions and encouragement to take part in sports activities must be taken into account when considering the lack of physical exercise among adolescent girls. "In our culture, young women traditionally tend to engage in more sedentary activities than boys do, such as reading or studying. They also tend to receive less support for doing sports activities from the home. As they get older, girls tend to prioritize other activities, such as their studies, friendships and family rather than sports", explained Bosque.
Risks of a lack of physical exercise
According to the experts, physical exercise is important throughout life to help motor development, prevent health problems and maintain good physical fitness. A sedentary lifestyle is also directly related to specific pathologies and clinical conditions, such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and even some types of cancer.
"Adolescents who do not do enough physical exercise have a greater tendency to be overweight, and are more likely to suffer from non-communicable diseases in adulthood, as well as being at greater risk of suffering from disorders such as depression and anxiety," warned the experts.
According to the WHO, adolescents should do at least one hour of moderate or intense physical exercise every day of the week. Three of these weekly hours should be vigorous activities, or activities that strengthen the muscles and bones to remain in good health at these ages.
"Active young people become active adults, which is why physical exercise is behaviour that should be acquired from childhood," explained Gontié.
Alternatives to avoid a sedentary lifestyle
A lack of physical exercise in adolescence and the absence of a sports routine create more sedentary young people and adults, who are more likely to suffer from health problems. According to a study published in the scientific journal The Lancet, in 2019, 83% of Spanish adolescents do less than sixty minutes of physical exercise per day.
These experts point out that education about the benefits of physical exercise at school and the promotion of sport are key factors in preventing sedentary lifestyles. However, they must be accompanied by the necessary resources: the right space, but also appropriate, varied, adapted, inclusive and satisfying activities for everyone.
However, physical exercise need not only take place at school. Extracurricular activities, such as playing sports, walking from one place to another, climbing stairs and above all avoiding spending too many hours sitting in front of a screen can take place outside school hours.
"People who have a more sedentary lifestyle are those who also tend to have less healthy eating habits, and vice versa. It is essential to make society aware of the importance of maintaining healthy habits from childhood for this reason," concluded the researchers.
The DESKcohort project is led by the University of Vic - Central University of Catalonia, with the support of the Subdirectorate General for Drug Addiction of the Public Health Agency of Catalonia and the Catalan Ministry of Education. Other institutions are also involved, including the Public Health Agency of Catalonia, the Centre for Biomedical Research in Epidemiology and Public Health Network (CIBERESP), the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the Centre for Epidemiological Studies of Sexually Transmitted Disease and AIDS in Catalonia (CEEISCAT).
González-Casals, H., Rogés, J., Bosque-Prous, M., Casabona, J. Folch, C., Colom, J., Espelt, A. and the DESKcohort Working Group. (2022). Comportaments i necessitats de salut de l'alumnat de secundària, cicles formatius i batxillerat de la Catalunya Central. DESKcohort survey. 1st wave 2019/20. Manresa: Fundació Universitària del Bages.
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Professor and researcher in the UOC's Faculty of Health Sciences
Laura Esquius de la Zarza
Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences
Director of the Master's Degree in Food for Physical Exercise and Sport
Expert in: Nutrition and health, sports nutrition, diet and cancer, clinical nutrition and diet therapy.
Knowledge area: Food, nutrition and sporting performance.