Global Inactivity Crisis Puts 1.8 Billion at Disease Risk

WHO photo

A recent study from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that nearly one-third of adults worldwide, approximately 1.8 billion people, failed to meet the recommended levels of physical activity in 2022. This alarming trend of inactivity has seen a 5% increase since 2010 and poses severe health risks, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and certain cancers.

“If the trend continues, levels of inactivity are projected to rise to 35% by 2030,” the study warns. The WHO’s guidelines advocate for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week. Falling short of these benchmarks significantly heightens the risk of numerous health issues, including cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, as well as cancers like breast and colon cancer.

The research, published in The Lancet Global Health journal, was conducted by WHO experts and academic collaborators. It highlights a critical opportunity missed in battling cancer, heart disease, and mental health issues through physical activity. “We must renew our commitments to increasing levels of physical activity and prioritize bold action, including strengthened policies and increased funding, to reverse this worrying trend,” stated WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

High-income regions such as the Asia Pacific and South Asia exhibit the highest inactivity rates at 48% and 45%, respectively. Other areas report inactivity levels ranging from 28% in high-income Western countries to 14% in Oceania.

Gender and age disparities also persist, with physical inactivity more prevalent among women (34%) than men (29%). The gap is even more pronounced in some countries. Older adults, particularly those over 60, are less active, further underscoring the need for targeted physical activity promotion.

“Physical inactivity is a silent threat to global health, contributing significantly to the burden of chronic diseases,” said Dr. Rüdiger Krech, WHO’s Director of Health Promotion. Krech emphasized the need for innovative strategies to encourage physical activity, taking into account age, environment, and cultural factors. By making physical activity more accessible, affordable, and enjoyable, the risk of noncommunicable diseases can be significantly reduced.

Personal stories, such as that of Irma Santos, a 45-year-old office worker, highlight the dangers of inactivity.

Despite not being overweight, Maria suffered a mild heart attack last year, which doctors attributed to her sedentary lifestyle. “I never thought lack of exercise could be so dangerous,” she said. “Now, I make sure to walk every day.”

While the findings paint a bleak picture, some countries show signs of progress. Nearly half of the world’s nations have made improvements over the past decade, with 22 countries on track to meet the global target of reducing inactivity by 15% by 2030.

WHO is urging countries to bolster policy implementation to promote physical activity through community sports, active transport options like walking and cycling, and public recreational spaces. “Promoting physical activity goes beyond promoting individual lifestyle choices – it requires a whole-of-society approach and creating environments that make it easier and safer for everyone to be more active,” said Dr. Fiona Bull, Head of WHO’s Physical Activity Unit.

To combat inactivity, collaborative efforts involving government and nongovernmental stakeholders, along with investments in innovative approaches, are essential. These efforts aim to engage the least active populations and reduce disparities in access to physical activity-promoting measures, fostering a healthier and more active global population.


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