Exercising can prevent up to five million deaths a year, but exercising is also a matter of equality

Physical activity improves physical, mental, and social health and general well-being; helps prevent disease and reduces the burden on health systems. According to those responsible for the World Health Organization, up to 5 million deaths a year could be avoided if the world population were more active.

The heads of the UN agency assure that taking into account these figures, “physical activity can no longer be considered as a ‘nice’ component to include in public policy.”

And they add that the practice of sport “is an essential component of ‘Health for all’, which is the creed of the World Health Organization to achieve healthier populations and a healthier planet. In summary, it is time to ensure that physical activity is essential”.

However, many people live in areas with little or no access to spaces where they can safely walk, run, bike, or do other physical activities. And when those options exist, they may not have been developed to meet the needs of older adults or people with disabilities.

Statistics show that one in four adults worldwide does not get enough physical activity that allow you to take advantage of its benefits and reveal that, in all countries, women, ethnic minority groups, disadvantaged communities and people with disabilities or chronic diseases are more likely to remain inactive.

For example, women are less active than men, with a difference of more than 8% globally (32% men vs 23% women). High-income countries are more inactive (37%) compared to middle-income countries (26%) and low-income countries (16%).

The World Health Organization guidelines recommend that everyone be active regularly for mental and physical health benefits. Adults should perform at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity per week, and an average of 60 minutes a day for children and adolescents.

Inactivity levels among teens are also alarminggiven that at least three-quarters of them do not follow the guidelines, and of that proportion, in most countries, girls are more prone to inactivity than boys.

UNICEF / Giacomo Pirozzi

Women, ethnic minority groups, disadvantaged communities, and people with disabilities or chronic illnesses are more likely to remain inactive.

The unfair inequality

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed existing inequalities by exacerbating them in vulnerable individuals and communities. Those responsible for the World Health Organization recall that too many people live in communities with unsafe streets for pedestrians and cyclists, with poor access to open public spaces, and unaffordable programs and facilities for exercising or playing sports.

“This is unfair and must change,” they say.

Therefore, the UN agency has asked decision-makers in the health, sports, education and transport sectors to urgently increase the offer of more inclusive programs and services and safer environments that promote physical activity in all communities.

In a document to promote the practice of physical exercise, entitled Fair Play: Create a Strong Physical Activity System for More Active People, WHO public health experts explain how this can be achieved.

“There is an urgent need to provide people with better opportunities to lead an active and healthy life. Today, the chances of people participating in physical activity are uneven and unfair. This inequality has only worsened over the years. COVID-19 pandemic, “said Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, deputy director general of the Organization, on the occasion of the presentation of the document.

Recommendations based on knowledge and experience

The report recalls that physical activity contributes to social integration, gender equality, employability and education, highlights the main challenges and opportunities of how countries can build a fairer sports and physical activity system, and calls for support to countries to expand actions to promote physical activity in all its forms, for all ages and abilities.

Dr Fiona Bull, Head of the Physical Activity Unit, said the report “is based on knowledge and experience” and also “provides clear messages to all who work to create a more active society about what we have. to do”.

The call goes to industries, civil society and governments, as well as United Nations agencies, to build a common vision to create more active societies through sport, walking, cycling and play.

Supportive environments and communities help people to be physically active.


Supportive environments and communities help people to be physically active.

Action plan

Achieving real progress in physical activity requires a coordinated strategic systems approach, as outlined in the World Health Organization’s Global Plan of Action on Physical Activity 2018-2030.

The Plan includes evidence and policy recommendations based on practice on how to increase physical activity in all countries.

In addition, it urges all countries to provide consistent public education, supportive environments, and diverse programs that enable people to stay active in a safe and enjoyable way through:

  • Constant communication campaigns on physical activity, carried out through a wide range of communication media, with messages and images adapted to the diversity of communities, in order to effectively reach people and give them participation
  • Environments that provide safe and affordable access to establishments, places and spaces where people can be more active in different ways
  • Programs, products and services that offer affordable and inclusive opportunities to exercise

Existing obstacles

However, there are also interrelated obstacles that limit progress towards an effective, efficient and sustainable physical activity system at scale:

  • Insufficient, unequal and ineffective investment
  • Inappropriate and discordant policies, laws, regulatory frameworks and standards
  • Fragmented and uneven program delivery and partnerships that result in service gaps

In order to accelerate progress toward more universal exercise, achieve recovery from COVID-19, and unleash the full potential of physical activity, the following changes should be fostered:

1. Establish innovative and diversified financing mechanisms

Current funding is insufficient and often short-term; its scope is narrow and it is less focused on strengthening a system conducive to physical activity than on pilot and demonstration projects.

New and diversified financing mechanisms and sources of investment are urgently needed, aimed at reducing structural inequalities and supporting the most vulnerable.

Governments, development organizations, donor organizations and businesses will need to review current funding and grant mechanisms to make them more sustainable and long-term.

Governments need to consider new approaches to redistribution, for example, taxes, subsidies, social ties and blended finance, with a view to promoting the enabling factors, infrastructure and community initiatives that are needed.

Adults should get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity a week, and an average of 60 minutes a day for children and teens.

UNICEF/Igor Isanovic

Adults should get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity a week, and an average of 60 minutes a day for children and teens.

2. Pass consistent policies, laws, regulatory frameworks and standards

Such measures must aim to improve the equity, inclusion, safety, accessibility and affordability of physical activity, and this requires strong and harmonized policies, laws and standards.

For example, policies, regulations, and standards will require the creation of sufficient quality networks for pedestrians and cyclists, public access to open spaces, physical education in schools, playgrounds, and recreational facilities and equipment for community use.

Governments will need to implement policies and laws to reduce barriers to physical activity (exclusion, safety, access, and affordability) and create incentives to help people be more active, through mandatory improvements to environments, services, and programs.

3. Create a more integrated physical activity system

An efficient and effective physical activity system must enable the more equitable and fair implementation of the elements that promote physical activity.

Such a system should evolve towards more integrated and linked models that produce a sustainable and measurable effect, which in turn will attract more investment and create a virtuous circle.

Education campaigns, settings and appropriate and inclusive programs can be made available to all communities through better identification of synergies and opportunities.

For example, contacts between programs and organizations could be facilitated; strengthen training and professional criteria among workers, so that implementation is more consistent; establish better integrated information and impact assessment systems; and use innovations in digital systems that are accessible.

This can only be achieved in collaboration with other stakeholders, in particular community services, primary and secondary health care services and social services.

In addition, there are three key actions to create the conditions that allow people to exercise more:

  • Create stronger alliances between sectors to offer effective programs, services and safe environments that involve and support everyone to be active
  • Establish stronger regulatory and governance structures to ensure environments support safe physical activity and inclusive sports and programs
  • Adopt broader, deeper and more innovative funding mechanisms to build a robust and sustainable system that can provide physical activity and sport for all ages and abilities