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Sedentary behavior has become increasingly common in modern society, resulting in a general decrease of physical activity worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines physical activity as any bodily movement including activities undertaken during leisure, work, home-based activities, and engaging in recreational pursuits. Increased urbanization, which generally increases air pollution, decreases the number of parks and sidewalks, and spurs high-density traffic, often discourages participation in physical activity. This is particularly concerning given that insufficient physical activity is one of ten leading risk factors - along with more commonly known risk factors such as smoking and obesity - for death and noncommunicable diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes. 

Research shows … 

Eliminating physical inactivity could add 0.68 years to the life expectancy of the world's population, including active people, according to a 2012 study for the Lancet Physical Activity Series Working Group. In addition, 9 percent of premature deaths, or 3.3 of the 36 million deaths worldwide each year, could be averted if inactive people were to become active. For comparison, smoking caused about 5 million deaths globally in 2000.

The billion dollar economic price tag

In addition to harming individuals, physical inactivity has real and increasingly measurable effects on the global economy. The economic burden of physical inactivity in 2013 was estimated at $67.5 billion worldwide, according to the recent research published in the Lancet journal. This is equivalent to the net worth of the world's second richest person or the GDP of Ethiopia. Total costs include direct health-care costs of $53.8 billion and productivity losses due to premature deaths of $13.7 billion. Economic and health burdens are distributed unequally across regions. Current economic costs are borne mainly in high-income countries given that these countries have more developed health and economic systems. Less developed countries pay more in terms of disease burden as they can least afford to implement social programs to address physical inactivity.

Physical activity yields healthier and more productive populations

Apart from the billions of dollars that could be saved to the world economy if levels of inactivity decrease, physical activity could help reduce the rates of coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, breast and colon cancer, depression, and other noncommunicable diseases. At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, such as walking, cycling or other sports, is considered to be sufficient for adults, according to the WHO.

Related Data Insights

Health Profile

Key health indicators presented on this page cover such topics as health expenditure, life expectancy at birth, immunization coverage among children, mortality and burden of disease, stunting prevalence, years of life lost, utilization of health services, access to improved water and sanitation, health workforce, risk factors. Indicators are compiled from the World Development Indicators database of World Bank, Global Health Observatory and Statistics Database of World Health Organization.

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