WHO highlights the high cost of physical inactivity in a first-ever global report

Almost 500 million people will develop heart disease, obesity, diabetes or other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) due to lack of physical activity between 2020 and 2030, costing 27 billion USD per year, unless governments take urgent action to encourage more physical activity among their populations.

The Global Status of Physical Activity 2022 report, released today by the World Health Organization, measures the extent to which governments are meeting recommendations to increase physical activity across all ages and abilities.

Data from 194 countries show that overall progress is slow and that countries need to accelerate the development and implementation of policies to increase physical activity levels and thus prevent disease and reduce the burden on already overburdened health care systems.

  • Less than 50% of countries have a national physical activity policy, of which less than 40% are operational
  • Only 30% of countries have national guidelines for physical activity for all age groups
  • While almost all countries report a system for monitoring physical activity in adults, 75% of countries monitor physical activity among adolescents and less than 30% monitor physical activity in children under 5 years of age
  • In policy areas that could promote active and sustainable transport, only just over 40% of countries have road design standards that make walking and cycling safer.

“We need more countries to expand the implementation of policies to support people to be more active through walking, cycling, sport and other physical activity. The benefits are enormous not only for people’s physical and mental health, but also for societies, environments and economies…” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, “We hope that countries and partners will use this report , to build more active, healthier and fairer societies for all.”

The economic burden of physical inactivity is significant and the cost of treating new cases of preventable non-communicable diseases (NCDs) will reach nearly US$300 billion by 2030, about US$27 billion per year.

While national policies to address NCDs and physical inactivity have increased in recent years, 28% of policies are currently reported to be unfunded or implemented. Considered a “best buy” to motivate the population to fight NCDs, the report showed that just over 50% of countries had conducted a national communication campaign or organized mass physical activity events in the past two years. The COVID-19 pandemic not only halted these initiatives, but also affected the implementation of other policies, which widened inequalities in access to and opportunities to engage in physical activity for many communities.

To help countries increase physical activity, the WHO Global Plan of Action on Physical Activity 2018-2030 (GAPPA) sets out 20 policy recommendations – including policies to create safer routes to promote more active transport, provide of more programs and opportunities for physical activity in key settings such as childcare, schools, primary health care and the workplace. Today’s Global Status Report assesses the country’s progress against these recommendations and shows that much more needs to be done. A critical finding in the Global State of Physical Activity report is that there are significant gaps in global data to track progress on important policy actions – such as the provision of public open space, the provision of walking and cycling infrastructure, and the provision of sport and physical education in schools . The report also calls for addressing weaknesses in some existing data.

“We lack globally agreed indicators to measure access to parks, bike lanes, footpaths – although we know data exists in some countries. We are therefore unable to report or track the global provision of infrastructure that will facilitate increased physical activity,” said Fiona Bull, head of WHO’s physical activity division. “It can be a vicious cycle, a lack of indicator and data leads to no tracking and accountability, and then too often to a lack of policy and investment. What gets measured gets done, and we have some way to go to comprehensively and robustly track national action on physical activity.”

The report calls on countries to prioritize physical activity as key to improving health and tackling noncommunicable diseases, to integrate physical activity into all relevant policies, and to develop tools, guidelines and training to improve implementation.

“It is good for public health and makes economic sense to encourage more physical activity for everyone,” said Dr Rüdiger Kretsch, Director of the Division of Health Promotion, WHO. “We need to make inclusive physical activity programs easier for everyone and make sure people have easier access to them. This report makes a clarion call to all countries for stronger and accelerated action by all relevant stakeholders to work better together to achieve the global target of reducing the prevalence of physical inactivity by 15% by 2030. “

Data for the report are drawn from the WHO Noncommunicable Disease Country Capacity Survey (2019 and 2022) and the WHO Global State of Road Safety Report (2018).

The cost of physical inactivity to health systems, manuscript in Preprints with The Lancet (peer-reviewed version forthcoming in The Lancet Global Health)

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