The $828 billion global physical activity sector, while enormous, is currently only engaging about one-third of the world’s population. According to The Lancet, one-quarter to one-third of adults around the world are not getting sufficient physical activity by any method (via natural movement or recreational activities). The large and growing share of the world’s population with insufficient physical activity represents a major ongoing public health challenge, especially alongside rising rates of obesity and chronic disease. The solution lies in addressing the major barriers to physical activity across all spheres of life—from leisure options to increasing the natural movement embedded in daily life (i.e., transportation, domestic, and occupational physical activity).

To explore how to engage more people in physical activity, GWI reviewed dozens of national and cross-country surveys and studies that collect information on the motivations for and barriers against participation in physical activities. These studies cover more than 60 countries across all regions of the world. While these studies employed different methodologies, were conducted in different languages, and varied in the way they framed questions and responses, in aggregate, they reveal important findings about physical activity motivations and barriers.

  • Motivations: When adults were asked why they engage in regular physical activity, by far the most cited reason is for maintaining good health (also “physical wellbeing,” “to feel good,” “to be fit,” and other similar responses). The next most cited reasons are stress reduction or relaxation and for fun or pleasure. Other motivations include being with friends and family, building muscle strength, to look good, weight loss, to be out in nature, and to feel challenged/fulfilled or for self-improvement. When children and teens were asked why they participate in sports, exercise, or physical activities, they most often say they do so for fun and to be with friends and not for health reasons.
  • Barriers: For those who do not engage in regular physical activity, the most significant barrier for adults is lack of time, followed by lack of interest (“not a priority,” “too much trouble,” “prefer to do something else,” etc.) and physical condition or health-related reasons (illness, injury, disability, age, pregnancy, etc.). Lack of motivation or habit is also a significant barrier for adults; many report that they are too lazy to exercise or they have no habit of doing so. For children and teens, the most frequently mentioned barriers are lack of time (due to schoolwork) and lack of a convenient facility or activity near home. Other reasons cited by youth include not having fun and preferring to do something else (such as spending time with friends).

It is not a surprise that those who are physically active cite health as their main motivation. It is also not surprising that time constraints are the most significant barrier for those who are inactive, especially in higher-income countries. While most people are aware of the benefits of physical activity, their busy lives—work, school, family obligations—preclude them from being active when it competes with other priorities. More surprising is that physical conditions (e.g., health-related reasons, illness, age, or the perceived inability to engage in physical activity) are frequently mentioned as a barrier, more so than cost/money constraints or access to facilities.

A lack of interest/motivation and lack of access to facilities are cited as barriers more often in low-income countries than in wealthier regions. Personal safety and being uncomfortable at a gym are also mentioned as a concern by women and girls in some countries where gender and social norms discourage female participation in sports and outdoor recreation, prevent activities in coed settings, or prohibit physical activity for females in general. For example, in one study in Central America, girls reported multiple barriers, such as lack of access to fields and facilities, lack of equipment, lack of money, lack of parental permission, lack of clothing, and safety. In the same study, boys rarely mentioned these as constraints, and they regarded the lack of time as their most important barrier.

GWI’s full report, Move to be Well: The Global Economy of Physical Activity, provides numerous examples of innovations, new business models, and public policy initiatives that can help overcome barriers to physical activity, increase participation, and extend the many benefits of movement to more people around the world.

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