Americans Rank in Bottom 15th Percentile When It Comes to Exercise

August 14, 2020
Office fitness in America

With nearly 40,000 fitness clubs in the United States and millions of FitBits, Apple Watches and other personal tracking devices being used, you’d think Americans would be in the top tier of countries measured by how much exercise they get. But according to a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) we Americans actually rank a dismal 143rd out of 168 countries surveyed.

Other first world countries with embarrassing stats include the UK (123rd), Singapore (126th) and Australia (97th). Kuwait was at the bottom of the chart (168th), where more than half of their population gets too little exercise. This is in contrast to relatively poor countries like Uganda and Mozambique where only 6% of residents are under-exercised.

1 out of 4 Adults Don’t Get Enough Exercise

According to the WHO, 1.4 billion people around the world do not get enough exercise, which they define as at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity or 150 minutes of moderately intense activity per week, or any combination of the two.

In most countries, women tend to be less active than men. People in poorer nations are more than twice as active as their counterparts in high-income nations. The report’s authors point to sedentary occupations and a higher dependence on automobiles for the slide in activity.

They clearly state that “a significant increase in national action is urgently needed in most countries.”

Failing to Keep Up, Much Less Improve

The WHO is not on track to meet its 2025 target of reducing physical inactivity by 10 percent. Globally, these rates of exercise haven’t improved since 2001. They even got worse in wealthy countries like the US and Germany, and in Latin American nations like Brazil and Argentina.

“Unlike other major global health risks, levels of insufficient physical activity are not falling worldwide, on average, and over a quarter of all adults are not reaching the recommended levels of physical activity for good health.” – Dr. Regina Guthold

This growing inactivity is of “grave concern,” the American Heart Association said in a statement. That’s because a lack of exercise increases one’s risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and body weight. It even pervades into things like increased risk of dementia and a variety of cancers.

We also know from studies published by other major research institutions that so-called “sitting disease” is also responsible for chronic low back pain, lower extremity circulatory issues, posture-related issues (i.e. “computer hunch”), excessive fatigue and shortened life span. The American Medical Association has also chimed in, declaring the equivalency of “one hour of sitting equals the smoking of one cigarette,” in terms of overall health impact.

Contributing factors to wealthier societies’ health decline include not just the increase in sedentary jobs and seated commute time, but also things like more television watching and video game playing, less growing and cooking of our food as opposed to going out to restaurants and eating more processed fast foods, and more cruise ship vacations versus backpack tourism.

What You Can Do About It

To meet the minimum fitness guidelines from the CDC and WHO, you should put in an average of about 30 minutes per day. Five days of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise — like a 30-minute brisk walk or a casual bike ride — is enough to meet the aerobic guidelines. Then two days should also include resistance training that involves weights or body-weight exercises, since those activities are the best ways to strengthen bones and muscles.

If that sounds like a lot, you can get your weekly dose of aerobic exercise faster by partaking in more vigorous exercises like running or swimming — anything that gets your heart pumping. It takes just 75 minutes of that type of physical activity each week to meet the guidelines.

This Is Where Office Fitness Also Comes into Play

This ongoing study by the WHO focuses only on exercise, but does not delve into non-sedentary alternatives that don’t involve cardio exercise. That is, standing and walking while working, without breaking a sweat. There has already been a wealth of published research we’ve reported on over the past few years revealing that sitting for more than 3 hours a day goes beyond our bodies’ design limits, and that no amount of exercise after the fact will undo some of the damage that the human body incurs from extended durations of non-movement.

While standing or walking at your desk can never become a substitute for moderate or high intensity exercise, it is the perfect complement to it if your life is just too busy.

The WHO recommends doubling down on these exercise minimums if you have a sedentary job, but that’s not based on any actual research showing that the effects of sitting disease can be unraveled by simply exercising more. It’s just a kindly suggestion.

The preponderance of other published research demonstrates that merely doubling down on cardio will not have the same positive benefits as just sitting a lot less, i.e. getting “N.E.A.T.” (non-cardio) movement while working at your desk.

To keep in the loop about everything that’s new in office fitness, sign up for our WorkWhileWalking newsletter.

Join the Office Fitness Club!


A periodic newsletter featuring our latest product reviews (including standing desks, treadmill desks, desktop converters, ergonomic accessories, cable management, & more!), industry developments, and pro tips.

Expert tips and tricks we’ve accumulated from years of using and reviewing active workstation gear.

Flash sales & discounts sponsored by top office fitness brands.


1 Comment

Leave a response >
  • Robert Sanchez March 8, 2021

    Thank you. These types of articles/studies are pretty fascinating to me.