By 2030 almost 500 million people worldwide will develop heart disease, obesity, diabetes or other non-communicable diseases due to a lack of physical activity if governments do not take urgent action, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warns.
Gathering data from 194 countries, the WHO's first-ever global report on physical inactivity shows that little progress has been made and countries must accelerate policies to increase physical activity and thereby prevent disease and reduce the burden on healthcare systems.
"We need more countries to scale up implementation of policies to support people to be more active through walking, cycling, sport, and other physical activity," said WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "The benefits are huge, not only for the physical and mental health of individuals but also for societies, environments, and economies."
However, the reports found that less than half of countries have a national physical activity policy, of which only about 40% are operational. Only 30% of countries have national physical activity guidelines for all age groups.
Billions of public funds every year
While nearly all countries have a system for monitoring physical activity in adults, only 75% monitor it among adolescents and less than 30% monitor physical activity in children under 5 years old. Barely 40% have road design standards that make walking and cycling safer.
"We hope countries and partners will use this report to build more active, healthier, and fairer societies for all," Ghebreyesus said.
He stated that in addition to health complications, the economic burden of physical inactivity is significant and the cost of treating new cases of preventable diseases will reach nearly $300 billion (€305,115 billion) by 2030 – around $27 billion (€27,46 billion) annually.
While national policies to tackle these diseases and physical inactivity have increased in recent years, 28% of policies are currently reported to be not funded or implemented.
The report showed that barely half of countries run national communications campaigns or mass participation physical activity events in the last two years. Authors called these initiatives a “best buy” for motivating populations to combat diseases. This has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
To help countries increase physical activity, the WHO’s action plan sets out 20 policy recommendations – including the creation of safer roads to encourage more active transport and providing more programmes and opportunities for physical activity – especially within childcare, schools and the workplace.
No data, no accountability, no policy
"A critical finding is that we are missing globally approved indicators to measure access to parks, cycle lanes, and footpaths – even though we know these data exist in some countries," said Fiona Bull, Head of WHO Physical Activity Unit, adding that this means the WHO cannot report or track the global provision of infrastructure that will facilitate increases in physical activity.
"It can be a vicious circle: no indicators and no data leads to no tracking and no accountability, and then too often, to no policy and no investment... What gets measured gets done and we have some work to do to comprehensively track national actions on physical activity."
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The report calls for countries to prioritise physical activity as key to improving health and tackling diseases, integrate physical activity into all relevant policies, and develop tools, guidance and training to improve implementation.
"It is good for public health and it also makes economic sense to promote more physical activity for everyone," said WHO's Ruediger Krech, Director Department of Health Promotion. "We need to facilitate inclusive programmes for physical activity for all and ensure people have easier access to them."