By Tsim Mavisi

Countries have been urged to accelerate the progress of development and implementation of policies to increase levels of physical activity after a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that the progress is slow.

The report dubbed, WHO Status on Physical Activity 2022, measures the extent to which governments are implementing recommendations to increase physical activity across all ages and abilities, thereby preventing diseases and reducing the burden on already overwhelmed healthcare systems.

According to the report, from the data collected from 194 countries, less than 50% have a national physical activity policy of which less than 40% are operational. It also found that 30% of countries have national physical activity guidelines for all age groups.

While nearly all countries report a system for monitoring physical activity in adults, 75% of countries monitor physical activity among adolescents, and less than 30% monitor physical activity in children under 5 years. In policy areas that could encourage active and sustainable transport, only just over 40% of countries have road design standards that make walking and cycling safer.

“We need more countries to scale up implementation of policies to support people to be more active through walking, cycling, sports, and other physical activities. The benefits are huge, not only for the physical and mental health of individuals, but also societies, environments, and economies,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus WHO Director-General in a statement.

He also expressed confidence that the report would help countries and partners build more active, healthier, and fairer societies for all.

According to the report, the economic burden of physical inactivity is significant and the cost of treating new cases of preventable non-communicable diseases (NCDs) will reach nearly US$ 300 billion by 2030, around US$ 27 billion annually.

The report showed that only just over 50% of countries ran a national communications campaign, or organized mass participation physical activity events in the last two years. It also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had not only stalled these initiatives but also affected other policy implementations which have resulted in widened inequities in access to opportunities for engaging in physical activity for many communities.

To help countries increase physical activity, WHO’s Global action plan on physical activity 2018-2030 (GAPPA) has set out 20 policy recommendations. The policies include; creating safer roads to encourage more active transport, and providing more programs and opportunities for physical activity in key settings such as childcare, schools, primary health care,` and the workplace. The Global Status report assessment of the countries’ progress against the recommendations shows that much more needs to be done.

One of the critical findings in the Global status report on physical activity is the existence of significant gaps in global data to track progress on important policy actions such as the provision of public open space, provision of walking and cycling infrastructure, and provision of sport and physical education in schools. The report also calls for weaknesses in some existing data to be addressed.

“We are missing globally approved indicators to measure access to parks, cycle lanes, and footpaths even though we know that data do exist in some countries. Consequently, we cannot report or track the global provision of infrastructure that will facilitate increases in physical activity,” said Fiona Bull, Head of the WHO Physical Activity Unit. She noted that the unavailability of data hinders tracking and accountability, therefore making it difficult to form policies and make investments.

The report calls for countries to prioritize physical activity as key to improving health and tackling NCDs, integrate physical activity into all relevant policies, and develop tools, guidance, and training to improve implementation.

“It is good for public health and makes economic sense to promote more physical activity for everyone,” said Dr. Ruediger Krech, Director Department of Health Promotion, WHO.