Nearly a Third of Adults Fail to Meet Global Physical Activity Recommendations
People running
The World Health Organization sees physical activity as a “missed opportunity” in combatting noncommunicable diseases.

Physical inactivity levels have jumped to 31%, meaning that around 1.8 billion people did not meet the recommended levels of physical activity in 2022 , according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO). 

This is an increase of 10% since 2000, mostly driven by data from lower-middle income countries. Lack of physical activity increases the risk of a host of non-communicable diseases (NCDs)  like heart disease and diabetes, poor physical and cognitive function, weight gain, and mental ill-health. 

Map of global physical inactivity
Global physical inactivity has risen by 10% in the past two decades. Much of the world’s inactivity is concentrated in lower-middle income countries.

The WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or an equivalent combination per week. Yet much of the global adult population fails to meet the recommendation.

The study, published in The Lancet Global Health Journal, is the first global estimate since 2016, and uses data from over 500 population-based surveys covering 5.7 million participants in 197 countries and territories. 

The WHO’s physical activity global target aims to reduce the prevalence of insufficient physical activity by 15% from 2018 to 2030. However global trends indicate physical inactivity will instead rise to 35% by 2030.

This poses a “silent threat” to global health and drives the burden of chronic diseases, as Dr Rüdiger Krech, WHO director of Health Promotion, noted in a press release

“We need to find innovative ways to motivate people to be more active, considering factors like age, environment, and cultural background. By making physical activity accessible, affordable, and enjoyable for all, we can significantly reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases and create a population that is healthier and more productive,” said Krech.

High levels of inactivity in Asia Pacific and South Asia

Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Singapore, considered high-income Asia Pacific countries, had the highest prevalence of insufficient physical activity at 48% in 2022. 

Second to this region is South Asia, with a 2022 prevalence of 45%. These numbers are especially worrying as those who are physically inactive have 20-30% increased risk of death compared with those who are physically active. Physical inactivity is linked specifically to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, colon and rectal cancer, and breast cancer. 

However, lower-middle income countries face the highest levels of physical inactivity at 38% in 2022 compared to low (17%), upper-middle (27%), and high income (33%) countries. 

Gender disparities persist 

Map of physical inactivity for women
Prevalence of insufficient physical activity among women.

Beyond geographic variations, the study warns of widening gender disparities. Globally, 34% of women are physically inactive, compared to 29% of men. In some countries, this difference is as much as 20 percentage points, according to a press release. 

The gender physical activity gap stems from many complex barriers limiting women’s physical activity: less leisure time, stereotypes, body image insecurities, and the constraints of cultural acceptability. Women and girls’ sports also receive less investment, according to a recent Lancet editorial on the issue.

Map of physical activity in men
Prevalence of insufficient physical activity in men.

These disparities widen as women age, with women over 60 having the highest relative levels of physical inactivity across all regions.

Physical inactivity increases as women age across all regions.

“These new findings highlight a lost opportunity to reduce cancer, heart disease and improve mental well-being through increased physical activity,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General in a press statement. “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.” 

Hopes for a more active world

The authors note that, although their physical inactivity estimates exceed the WHO targets for many countries, several countries are on track to increase physical activity by 2030. For example, at least six countries in Oceania have seen marked reductions in physical inactivity since 2000, from 23% to 14% in 2022. 

The WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or an equivalent combination per week.

An additional 16 countries are on track to reach the global target of reducing inactivity by 15% by 2030 if their trend continues at the same pace.

The WHO has called on countries to strengthen their policy implementation to promote and enable physical activity. Listing community sports, active recreation, and better active transport as ways to promote physical activity, the WHO aims to promote its 2030 targets through country-level policies. 

“Promoting physical activity goes beyond promoting individual lifestyle choice – it will require a whole-of-society approach and creating environments that make it easier and safer for everyone to be more active in ways they enjoy to reap the many health benefits of regular physical activity,” said Dr Fiona Bull, Head of the WHO Unit for Physical Activity in a press statement.


Image Credits: Gabin Vallet, The Lancet Global Health, WHO.

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