Public Release: 

Even more 'couch potatoes' in Brazil than in the United States--but they're starting to move

Pan American Health Organization

People in the United States of America may have a reputation for being "couch potatoes," but the proportion of Brazilians who shun physical activity during their leisure time is far higher than in the United States, according to the results of a broad-based study recently published in a scientific journal.

The percentage of Brazilian adults not engaging in leisure-time physical activity on even one day of the week "appears to be two to three times as high as the figures reported for the United States of America and the European countries," according to an English-language article in the October 2003 issue of the "Revista Panamericana de Salud Pública/Pan American Journal of Public Health." For leisure-time exercise or sports done on five or more days of the week, the pattern is similar, with a much higher proportion of Brazilians failing to reach that goal than is true for adults in the United States and Europe.

The study found that 13% of the Brazilians surveyed reported that they performed a minimum of 30 minutes of leisure-time physical activity on one or more days of the week. The 87% who did not reach that goal contrasts with the United States, where some 38% of the adults do not report any type of leisure-time physical activity at least once per week, and with Europe, where an estimated 32% do not achieve that minimal goal for physical activity.

In terms of accumulating at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week, only 3.3% of the Brazilians surveyed reached that objective. That compares with a figure of 25.4% for adults in the United States in 1998, according to information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The data used for the analysis in Brazil came from that country's first-ever national household survey intended to assess levels of physical activity. The survey, the Living Standards Measurement Survey, was conducted from March 1996 to February 1997 by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, in collaboration with the World Bank. The survey sampled more than 11,000 adults in almost 4,900 households in the Northeast and the Southeast of Brazil. Those two regions together have 70% of the total population of the country. The Northeast and the Southeast are, respectively, the least and the most economically developed of Brazil's five regions. While broad-based, the study's data collection did have one limitation, the study's authors pointed out. That was that the survey did not assess physical activities other than those performed during leisure time. Taking into account persons who are physically active in their jobs, such as in agriculture and construction, would reduce the apparent level of inactivity among adults in Brazil.

While much research has been done on physical activity in developed nations, this study from Brazil is one of the few broad-based investigations of leisure-time physical activity that has been carried out in a developing country.

In the United States, sedentary behavior is responsible for approximately 12% of all deaths and about one third of all deaths caused by ischemic heart disease, colon cancer, and diabetes. The toll from illness and premature death caused by physical inactivity has grown in Brazil and other developing countries in recent decades as those nations have become more urbanized and more people work in jobs that require less physical effort.

The gloomy situation for leisure-time physical activity in Brazil is showing some signs of turning around, nevertheless, according to a second piece in that same issue of the "Revista Panamericana de Salud Pública/Pan American Journal of Public Health." That piece describes a program called "Agita São Paulo" (Move, São Paulo). Begun in the state of São Paulo in 1996, the program applies a multitude of approaches in encouraging people to incorporate more physical activity in their daily routine, through sports but also such other activities as walking, cleaning the home, and commuting to work. Research that the "Agita" program has done in the state of São Paulo has found a growing awareness of the program and its key messages as well as increases in the proportion of people who are physically active. The program has spread to other states of Brazil, and similar programs have been established by groups in 11 other countries of Latin America as well as Portugal. In the celebration of World Health Day in April 2002 the World Health Organization lauded the "Agita" program as a model for other countries.

Issued monthly, the "Revista Panamericana de Salud Pública/Pan American Journal of Public Health" is the main scientific and technical periodical published by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). The "Revista/Journal" carries articles in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. The entire October 2003 issue of the "Revista/Journal" is devoted to the subject of physical activity in the region of the Americas. Other articles in the issue present research results from Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. A list of all the pieces in that special issue, along with summaries of them in English and either Spanish or Portuguese, is available from the PAHO Online Bookstore, at http://publications.paho.org, where that special issue can also be purchased.

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PAHO, which also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization, was established in 1902. PAHO Member States include all 35 countries in the Americas. Puerto Rico is an Associate Member. France, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are Participating States, and Portugal and Spain are Observer States.

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