Leisure-time physical activity in university students from 23 countries: associations with health beliefs, risk awareness, and national economic development

Prev Med. 2004 Jul;39(1):182-90. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2004.01.028.


Background: Physical inactivity has been linked with chronic disease and obesity in most western populations. However, prevalence of inactivity, health beliefs, and knowledge of the risks of inactivity have rarely been assessed across a wide range of developed and developing countries.

Methods: A cross-sectional survey was carried out with 19,298 university students from 23 countries varying in culture and level of economic development. Data concerning leisure-time physical activity, health beliefs, and health knowledge were collected.

Results: The prevalence of inactivity in leisure time varied with cultural and economic developmental factors, averaging 23% (North-Western Europe and the United States), 30% (Central and Eastern Europe), 39% (Mediterranean), 42% (Pacific Asian), and 44% (developing countries). The likelihood of leisure-time physical activity was positively associated with the strength of beliefs in the health benefits of activity and with national economic development (per capita gross domestic product). Knowledge about activity and health was disappointing, with only 40-60% being aware that physical activity was relevant to risk of heart disease.

Conclusions: Leisure-time physical activity is below recommended levels in a substantial proportion of students, and is related to cultural factors and stage of national economic development. The relationship between health beliefs and behavior is robust across cultures, but health knowledge remains deficient.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Coronary Disease / prevention & control
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Developing Countries / economics
  • Emigration and Immigration*
  • European Union / economics
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Leisure Activities*
  • Male
  • Prevalence
  • Students*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States
  • Universities