Nearly 500m new cases of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and dementia will occur globally by 2030 if governments do not take urgent action to encourage more people to take regular exercise, a report has found.
In a stark warning to countries where health services are already creaking, the World Health Organization said the cost of failing to get people moving more would be about $27bn (£24bn) a year.
“There are few areas in public health … where evidence on required action is so convincing, cost effective and practical,” according to the WHO’s first global report on physical activity, noting that regular exercise reduces the risk of premature death by 20-30%.
Yet, despite the clear benefits, implementation of policies aimed at encouraging more exercise has been “slow and uneven”, resulting in “little progress”, the report found.
“A consequence of this ‘inaction’ is that already stretched health systems are burdened with preventable disease today and even more so in the future, and communities fail to benefit from the wider social, environmental and economic benefits associated with more people being more active,” it added.
If the situation does not change, the WHO predicts that by 2030 there will be 499,208m new cases of preventable non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and mental health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, dementia, depression and some cancers. More than 40% of these will occur in lower middle-income countries such as Kenya, India and Bangladesh.
Nearly half of those new cases of NCDs would result from hypertension (high blood pressure), and 43% from depression, said the report, published on Tuesday.
The WHO has said that about 7-8% of all cases of cardiovascular disease, depression and dementia could be prevented if people were more active.
Examining data from 194 countries, the report found that fewer than half of them had a national policy on physical activity, of which under 40% were operational. Exercise levels in young children were a particular gap, it found, with less than 30% of countries monitoring physical activity in children under five.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, called on governments to implement policies to step up physical activity and thereby reduce the pressure on healthcare systems.
“We need more countries to scale up implementation of policies to support people to be more active through walking, cycling, sport and other physical activity. The benefits are huge, not only for the physical and mental health of individuals, but also for societies, environments and economies,” he said.