Physical activity

Nearly one third of adults are not physically active enough worldwide

Source: WHO Global Status Report NCDs 2014

There is strong evidence that being physically active protects against colon and endometrial cancer. There is also strong evidence that being physically active (including vigorous physical activity) protects against postmenopausal breast cancer and that vigorous physical activity protects against premenopausal breast cancer. In addition, being physically active protects against weight gain, overweight and obesity. Overweight or obese is linked to a number of cancers including bowel, liver, pancreas and breast (postmenopause).

Physical inactivity is estimated to cause 3.2 million deaths worldwide annually. Adults who are insufficiently physically active have a 20–30% higher risk of death compared with those who do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. As well as reducing the risk of ischaemic heart disease, stroke and diabetes, regular physical activity is a key component of energy expenditure and is therefore fundamental to energy balance, weight control and the prevention of obesity.

In 2010, 23% of adults aged 18 years and over were insufficiently physically active. Insufficient physical activity is defined as less than 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, or equivalent. Women were less active than men, with 27% of women and 20% of men not reaching the recommended level of activity, and older people were less active than younger people.

Insufficient physical activity in adults increased according to the level of country income. On average, high-income countries had almost double the prevalence of insufficiently physically active adults compared with low-income countries (33% versus 17%).

Globally, 81% of adolescents aged 11–17 years were insufficiently physically active in 2010. Adolescent girls were less active than adolescent boys, with 84% versus 78% not meeting the age-specific WHO recommendation of 60 minutes of physical activity per day.

The chart shows age standardised prevalence (percentage, %) of insufficient physical activity in adults aged 18 years and over. The pattern may be explained by more occupation and transport-related physical activity for both men and women in the low- and lower-middle-income countries. The increased automation of work and other aspects of life may explain the higher levels of insufficient physical activity in higher-income countries.

Age standardised percentages of insufficient physical activity (data from 2010)

Age standardised percentages of insufficient physical activity