Diving into economic inequality in inactivity – Part 1

There is undoubtedly a relationship between socio-economic deprivation and physical inactivity, however it’s not a straight forward one, in this first of  series of blogs on economics and inactivity I’m looking at the global context of country economics, urbanisation and designing cities that enable active populations.

At a global level the WHO reports from 2010 demonstrates that rates of inactivity in high income countries are more than double those in low income countries.

Inactivity by income group graph copy

And in some senses the higher rates of activity in low and low-middle income countries makes sense. Although it’s a stereotype perhaps, in these countries larger numbers of adults have to walk or cycle to work, or for every day utility based activities like shopping or getting drinking water, compared to upper middle or high income countries.


In contrast high income countries have much higher car use and a higher proportion of industry is service based rather than agriculture or manufacturing based.  The 24/7 always on culture that pervades high income economies is often associated with more inactive and sedentary lives, despite in many ways the increased economic freedom and autonomy.

However the overall global trend is towards more urban based living, and as countries increase their economic growth, this is accompanied by a growth in people moving to the economic hubs in the cities where the jobs and resources are centralised.

Although there are somewhat divergent views on whether cities are good for physical activity or not, the situation is more about how cities are designed and run than perhaps cities as environmental landscapes.

Cities that are designed to enable walking and cycling with good public transport infrastructure have higher levels of physical activity.


There is a growing body of guidelines and research to support emerging urban environments create spaces that activate activity rather than suppress it.

Building cities that have integrated transport cities demonstrates the synergies between modalities can be achieved with community co-production and creativity.

Here are just a few of the resources out there to help:

Town & Country Planning Association Healthy Weight Environments

TFL Healthy Streets Resources

Walk21 Resources for Walkable Cities

Making Space for Cycling Toolkit

ITDP Public Cycle Sharing Schemes for Indian Cities Toolkit

Open streets initiative toolkit

But creating active communities is more than cycle routes, dropped curbs and park benches, urban planning needs to consider factors like crime and community connection as well as transport when enabling active communities.

Research in countries such as the US and Brazil, and has demonstrated that perception and objectively measured crime and violence are important barriers to physical activity, particularly leisure based activity, although interestingly some research suggests the strength of impact varies across economic groups. However every little bit counts and the reality is that cities want low levels of crime anyway, so if designing out crime helps increase physical activity as a collateral benefit then great!

Similarly creating cities that enable connection and community is fundamental to sustainable cities and can have a collateral benefit for physical activity. If the physical environment promotes connection and encourages people to walk out of their front door to meet neighbours and go to community hubs like churches, leisure centres, parks and local shops, then this will all enable every day activity.

Mayors sit at the heart of this debate and across the world as cities grow so does the political power and leadership of local politicians to create environments that enable active lives.

At the launch in June of the WHO Global Action Plan on Physical Activity, the host Portugal also launched a concordat between the Government and the city mayors to promote physical activity through their leadership, it is a model that it would be great to see replicated across the world.

Ultimately as countries economic status improves there is a shift towards urban living and if we are to achieve the global aspirations of a more active world then we have to buck the association between high income status and inactivity and build cities and communities that enable, both physically and culturally, activity in every way, every day.





1 thought on “Diving into economic inequality in inactivity – Part 1

  1. […] the first part of this blog the focus was on economic inequality at a macro/societal level but in this second part I want to […]


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