Sports Medicine

, Volume 48, Issue 2, pp 481–489 | Cite as

Shifting the Physical Inactivity Curve Worldwide by Closing the Gender Gap

  • Grégore I. MielkeEmail author
  • Inacio Crochemore M. da Silva
  • Tracy L. Kolbe-Alexander
  • Wendy J. Brown
Original Research Article



The aims of this study were to (i) examine gender differences in physical inactivity in countries with different levels of Human Development Index (HDI); and (ii) assess whether small changes in the prevalence of inactivity in women could achieve the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global inactivity target.


Data on inactivity were extracted for 142 countries for the year 2010 from the WHO Data Repository. Data for HDI were obtained for the year 2010 from the United Nations Development Program. Absolute and relative gender differences were calculated for countries according to four HDI categories. The potential effects of increasing women’s activity levels on achievement of the WHO physical inactivity target were computed.


Overall inactivity prevalence was higher in women (27%) than in men (20%). Women were more inactive than men in all except eight countries. Absolute gender differences [median 7.5% (range −10.1 to 33.2)] did not vary by HDI category, but there was a small negative correlation between relative gender difference in inactivity and HDI (rho −0.19; p = 0.02), which was mostly influenced by three outlier countries with low HDI. A decrease in inactivity levels of 4.8% points among women across the world would achieve the WHO target of reducing global levels of inactivity by 10%.


Gender differences in the prevalence of physical inactivity were highly variable, both within and across categories of HDI. Interventions which result in small changes in inactivity prevalence in women would achieve the 2025 WHO global target for inactivity, without any change to the prevalence in men.


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflicts of interest

Gregore I. Mielke, Inacio Crochemore M. da Silva, Tracy L. Kolbe-Alexander and Wendy J. Brown declare that they have no conflicts of interest relevant to the content of this paper. The authors alone are responsible for the views expressed in this publication and they do not represent the decisions, policy or views of the World Health Organization.


No specific financial support was received for the conduct of this study or for the preparation of the manuscript. Gregore Mielke and Tracy Kolbe-Alexander were funded by a strategic grant from the University of Queensland which supported research fellows in the Centre for Research on Exercise, Physical Activity and Health at The University of Queensland.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Human Movement and Nutrition SciencesUniversity of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia
  2. 2.Postgraduate Program in EpidemiologyFederal University of PelotasPelotasBrazil
  3. 3.International Center for Equity in HealthFederal University of PelotasPelotasBrazil
  4. 4.School of Health and Wellbeing, Faculty of Health, Engineering and SciencesUniversity of Southern QueenslandIpswichAustralia

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