Background: Increasing leisure time physical exercise is a major target of public health programs throughout the developed world, but few international comparisons of exercise habits among people from diverse cultures have been published. The objectives of this study were to assess the prevalence of exercise among young adults from 21 European countries, to analyze associations with health beliefs and risk awareness, and to investigate relationships among exercise, other health-related behaviors, and emotional well-being.
Methods: The European Health and Behaviour Survey, a questionnaire survey of 7,302 male and 9,181 female university students ages 18-30 years from 21 countries, was analyzed.
Results: Age-adjusted prevalence of physical exercise in the past 2 weeks averaged 73.2% among men and 68.3% among women, but varied markedly from more than 80% to less than 60% across country samples. Beliefs in the health benefits of exercise were consistently associated with physical exercise, as was desire to lose weight. Awareness of the influence of exercise on heart disease averaged 52% among men and 54% among women, but was not strongly associated with engagement in exercise. Associations among exercise, lack of smoking, and sleep time were observed, but results for alcohol consumption were inconsistent. Social support and depression were independently associated with physical exercise.
Conclusions: Physical exercise levels are highly variable across samples of relatively privileged young Europeans from different countries. Associations with other health behaviors and with emotional well-being suggest that regular physical exercise is consistent with a healthy lifestyle. Links with health beliefs are consistent despite sociocultural differences, but deficient knowledge of the health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle remains a cause for concern.