Chronic diseases and health promotion

New physical activity recommendations for reducing disease and prevent deaths

Couple doing tai-chi

3 February, 2011 ¦ Geneva -- New global guidance outlined today highlight the risks posed by physical inactivity, which kills more than 3 million people annually, and measures that can prevent numerous cancers and other noncommunicable diseases, plus hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.

The Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health have been issued by the World Health Organization for national governments and address three age groups (5-17 years old, 18-64 years old, and 65 years old and above). Their primary focus is on prevention of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) linked to physical inactivity, particularly cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

"Death and illness linked to physical inactivity is at disturbing levels, increasingly so in developing countries, and the world needs to take action to reverse this worrying trend," says Dr Timothy Armstrong of WHO's Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion Department.

Dr Armstrong adds: "These first global recommendations on physical activity for health guide governments to develop policies that can help protect people's health and prevent diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. The recommendations are especially helpful for low- and middle-income countries, where few national guidelines for physical inactivity exist."

Physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global death, after high blood pressure, smoking and high blood glucose, and levels of physical inactivity are rising in many countries. This increase has major implications for health and the prevalence of NCDs, such as:

  • Around 3.2 million deaths per year, including 2.6 million in low- and middle-income countries, are due to physical inactivity.
  • Over 670 000 premature deaths (people aged under 60 years).
  • Physical inactivity is estimated as being a cause of breast and colon cancer, 27% of diabetes and 30% of ischaemic heart disease.

The recommendations state that regular physical activity reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, diabetes, hypertension, colon cancer, breast cancer, osteoporosis, and depression. Additionally, physical inactivity is a key determinant of energy expenditure, and thus is fundamental to energy balance and weight control.

The recommendations are the latest tool produced by WHO and partners aimed at reducing the global burden of NCDs, which are responsible for more than 35 million deaths annually, or over 60% of global mortality. Developing countries in particular are suffering greatly from such diseases, with over 8 million premature deaths from NCDs occurring in developing countries. In Africa alone, deaths from NCDs are expected to increase 25% by 2020 if no action is taken.

The United Nations General Assembly is placing increased importance on NCDs prevention and control as it prepares for its first-ever High-level meeting on the issue in September 2011. This historic opportunity offers a unique chance to change how the world deals with the NCDs epidemic, which kill more people than any other cause of death, with many largely preventable.

The recommendations were produced in coordination with a range of partners, including the United States Centers for Disease Control and the government of the United Kingdom.