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A new report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has revealed the growing global costs of the other pandemic – physical inactivity – and warned governments to take action to avoid health services collapsing.

The WHO have published a report calling on governments around the world to change tack urgently to encourage and enable more physical activity among their populations, forecasting that almost 500 million people will develop heart disease, obesity, diabetes or other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) attributable to physical activity between 2020 and 2030. The projected annual cost of this will total over £24 billion annually.

The Global Status Report on Physical Activity 2022 measures the extent that governments are implementing recommendations to increase physical activity across all ages and abilities. It summarises findings from 194 countries showing that progress has been slow and countries need to act now in accelerating the development and implementation of policies and practice to increase levels of physical activity, which will have a significant impact in preventing NCDs and reducing the burden felt by overwhelmed 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 physical activity guidelines for all age groups,
  • While nearly 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,
  • In policy areas that could encourage active and sustainable transport, only just over 40% of countries have road design standards that make walking and cycling safer.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General said:

“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. The benefits are huge, not only for the physical and mental health of individuals, but also for societies, environments, and economies. We hope 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 NCDs will reach nearly £267 billion by 2030, around £24 billion annually.

Whilst national policies to tackle NCDs and physical inactivity have increased in recent years, currently 28% of policies are reported to be not funded or implemented. Considered a “best buy” for motivating populations to combat NCDs, the report showed that only just over 50% of countries ran a national communications campaign, or organised mass participation physical activity events in the last two years. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only stalled these initiatives, but it also affected other policy implementation which has widened inequities in access to and, opportunities for, engaging in physical activity for many communities.

To help countries increase physical activity, WHO’s Global action plan on physical activity 2018-2030 (GAPPA) sets out 20 policy recommendations – including policies to create safer roads to encourage more active transport, provide more programmes and opportunities for physical activity in key settings, such as childcare, schools, primary health care and the workplace. The Global Status report assesses country progress against those recommendations, and shows that much more needs to be done.  One critical finding in the Global status report on physical activity is the existence of significant gaps in global data to track progress on important policy actions – such as provision of public open space, provision of walking and cycling infrastructure, provision of sport and physical education in schools. The report also calls for weaknesses in some existing data to also be addressed.

Fiona Bull, Head of WHO Physical Activity Unit commented:

“We are missing globally approved indicators to measure access to parks, cycle lanes, footpaths – even though we know that data do exist in some countries. Consequently, we cannot report or track the global provision of infrastructure that will facilitate increases in physical activity. It can be a vicious circle, no indicator 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 way to go to comprehensively and robustly track national actions on physical activity.”

The report calls for countries to prioritise physical activity as key to improving health and tackling NCDs, integrate physical activity into all relevant policies, and develop tools, guidance and training to improve implementation. The clear WHO message is that all that is currently being done – and in Scotland and the UK addressing physical inactivity has been a key government policy, with renewed annual investment, for over a decade – is not working, and a rethink is overdue.


WHO Global Status 2022