More people die of inactivity in Malta than anywhere else in the world, according to a major study.
Nearly one-fifth of all deaths on the island – 19.2 per cent – can be attributed to the fact that Malta has the most sedentary population of all, with nearly 72 per cent of the Maltese leading physically inactive lifestyles.
The causes of death resulting from lack of exercise include coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and colon cancer.
The shocking figures – presenting a major public health issue for the Maltese – were published in a series of studies in The Lancet, the prestigious medical journal.
In terms of physical inactivity, Malta is followed by Swaziland (69 per cent), Saudi Arabia (68.3 per cent), Serbia (68.3 per cent) and Britain (63.3 per cent).
In Britain, for example, 17 per cent of deaths are blamed on lack of physical activity. In other countries, however, the mortality rate from inactivity can be as low as two per cent. In Europe, the rate is the lowest in Greece, at just 4.2 per cent. That in the US is 10.8 per cent.
The report, which uses World Health Organisation data, suggests that the couch potato lifestyle kills about five million people worldwide a year, making sedentary lifestyles comparable to smoking in terms of the effect on health.
The study defines inactivity as not doing at any of the following three sort of activities: 30 minutes of moderate activity such as brisk walking at least five times a week; 20 minutes of vigorous activity at least three times a week; or an equivalent combination of the two.
The inactivity was largely blamed on social trends, such as spending more time in cars and in front of computers. The study called for global efforts to promote physical exercise through improvements of pedestrian and cyclist safety on city roads, more physical education at school and the promotion of access to free public exercise spaces.
“These findings are not to be taken lightly,” nutritionist and occupational therapist Daniela Cassola told The Times. She said poor diet, coupled with lack of exercise, impact the health of the population.
“Physical activity is essential to our health. It is enjoyable, fun, makes us feel good and needs to become a regular part of our daily life.”
Some exercise every day could prevent many conditions, especially heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure,” according to GP Paul Farrugia. “You meet many patients on a daily basis who would be better off if they were more physically active.”
Dr Farrugia said he usually recommends a 30-minute walk on alternate days or at least four times a week to patients.
“Swimming is a good alternative in summer, so one should make the best use of the warm season,” he added,
Charmaine Gauci, director of the Health Promotion Department, said more collaboration was needed from different stakeholders to increase facilities and opportunities for increased physical activity and sport for both children and adults.
A lot was being done already, but it also depended on how receptive people were to the message.
“Each individual needs to overcome any barriers he has to engage in physical activity which is beneficial for his or her own health. As for parents, they need to be role models for their children and be active themselves so the whole family can enjoy a healthy lifestyle.”