A new report from the World Health Organization finds that our collective sedentary lifestyle will take a heavy toll in the years to come if nothing changes. The report assumes that this will be the case almost be a half-billions of new cases of noncommunicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes due to physical inactivity by 2030. It also found that many countries are doing little to help people stay active, such as building safer, walkable roads.
That results come from the very first of the WHO's global physical activity status report. It analyzes data from 194 countries on how often people are physically active and the strategies implemented by the countries to promote physical activity. As part of the report, the authors also calculated the potential impact on health systems if people’s exercise levels remained the same through 2030. These latter estimates will be published in a forthcoming paper but can be seen in a form from the Lancet published last week.
Frequently more than one factor contributes to a person’s heart disease or other noncommunicable disorder (NCD), and only some of these risk factors are preventable or can be modified for the better. But many studies have shown that heaps of exercise no matter a person's age, can help people stay healthier. Based on other research, the authors attempted to calculate the proportion of preventable NCDs strongly linked to a lack of physical activity that would emerge over the next decade and specifically focuses on seven major diseases: heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers, dementia and depression.
Overall, the authors estimated that nearly 500 million new cases of these disorders would emerge between 2020 and 2030 worldwide. These cases would also generate around $300 billion in direct medical costs over this period and about $27 billion annually by 2030. Most of these cases (about 74%) would occur in low- to middle-income countries, but the economic cost would be greater in higher-income countries (about 64%).
“This study calls for urgent action by countries to prioritize investment in interventions that reduce this modifiable risk factor,” the authors write.
So far, however, it seems that most countries are far behind these investments. The WHO report found that less than half of the countries have any national physical activity policies at all. Only 30% of countries have established national physical activity guidelines for all ages. And while most countries have some way of tracking how active adults are, less than 30% do so for children under the age of 5. The implementation of many of these policies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the report Author’s note.
There are a variety of reasons why people aren’t as physically active as they could be, and many of them are beyond people’s control, such as the type of work and the hours they work. But the report also highlights the actions governments are failing to take take to encourage a more active lifestyle resident. For example, only 40% of countries have standards for designing roads that would make walking safer and easier, and to go biking safer.
“We need more countries to step up implementation of measures to support people to be more active in walking, cycling, exercising and other physical activities. The benefits are enormous, not only for the physical and mental health of individuals, but also for societies, the environment and the economy,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus WHO Director-General, in a expression announcement of the report. “We hope countries and partners will use this report to build more active, healthier and just societies for all.”
Some of WHO’s recommendations for promoting physical activity include more public open spaces, accessible roads and other infrastructure, and more sports or fitness activities in schools. There is also a need for better data collection, as little is known about people’s access to parks and other ways to help people become more active.