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Risk factor: Physical activity

Insufficient physical activity is a risk factor in many chronic diseases - it is estimated to cause 1.9 million deaths worldwide each year. Over half of the world's population do not reach recommended levels of physical activity.

Lack of physical activity is a risk factor in many chronic diseases, and regular, moderate physical activity (defined as at least 30 minutes each day), reduces body fat, lowers blood pressure and improves glucose metabolism. The risk of CVD and diabetes is reduced, and the risk of colon cancer and breast cancer may also diminish.

According to World Health Report estimates, physical inactivity causes 1.9 million deaths and 19 million disability-adjusted life years annually – for example, the risk of developing CVD increases by 50% in people who do not follow the minimum recommendations for exercise. Women and girls take, on average, less exercise than men and boys.

Increasing levels of physical activity, which is so critical to our future health, is achievable through relatively small changes to our environments, policies and public attitudes. Unless we begin making these changes obesity rates are likely to continue to rise, with a corresponding rise in chronic disease.

Busy lives – but not enough physical activity

Exercising helps to control body weight, but, as the graph below shows, almost 60% of the world’s population do not take recommended levels of physical activity. Although people in developed countries are the most likely to be inactive, obesity levels are also rising in developing countries.

As urbanisation continues (around half the world’s population now live in cities), many lifestyles become more sedentary, through better transportation links, labour-saving devices and less active occupations. There are opportunities for physical activity at work or at school, in the home, in travelling and as part of leisure activities. The most successful programmes to tackle obesity will encourage exercise in a range of ways that address the environment in which people live – for example, ensuring that town-planners design cities to encourage walking and cycling, and making sure that physical education is taught in schools (this has been declining worldwide – in the United Kingdom, for example, between 1992 and 2005 around 45% of school playing fields were built upon, although this decline seems to have been halted).

Physical inactivity graph for Physical Activity page

Source: World Health Report 2002 – note that these levels only estimate inactivity among adults (15+). As physical activity declines with age, the true rate of activity may be higher than shown here.