Physical activity

February 2012

Key facts

  • Physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality.
  • Globally, 6% of deaths are attributed to physical inactivity.
  • Physical inactivity is the main cause for approximately 21-25% of breast and colon cancers, 27% of diabetes and 30% of ischaemic heart disease burden.
  • Increasing levels of physical inactivity are seen worldwide, in high-income countries as well as low- and middle-income countries.
  • Infectious agents are responsible for almost 22% of cancer deaths in the developing world and 6% in industrialized countries.
  • All sectors and all levels within governments, international partners, civil society, non-governmental organizations and the private sector have vital roles to play in shaping healthy environments and contributing to the promotion of physical activity.

Benefits of activity

  • Increasing levels of physical activity bring health benefits across age groups.
  • Physically active persons:
    • have lower rates of: coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, colon and breast cancer, and depression;
    • have a lower risk of falling and of hip or vertebral fractures;
    • are more likely to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Both moderate and vigorous intensity physical activity bring health benefits
  • Intensity refers to the rate at which the activity is being performed. It can be thought of as how hard a person works to do the activity.
  • The intensity of different forms of physical activity varies between people.
  • Depending on an individual's relative level of fitness, examples of moderate physical activity could include brisk walking, dancing or household chores.
  • Examples of vigorous physical activity could be running, fast cycling, fast swimming or moving heavy loads.
  • WHO provides recommendations for the optimal amounts of activity, but doing some physical activity is better than doing none.

5-17 years old

  • People aged 5-17 should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. Amounts of physical activity greater than 60 minutes provide additional health benefits.

18-64 years old

  • Adults aged 18-64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity a week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous activity.
  • All activity should be performed in bouts of at least 10 minutes' duration.

Aged 65 and above

  • The main recommendations for adults and older adults are the same.
  • In addition, older adults with poor mobility should do physical activity to enhance balance and prevent falls three or more days per week.
  • When older adults cannot do the recommended amount of physical activity due to health conditions, they should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow.

Inactive people should start with small amounts of physical activity and gradually increase duration, frequency and intensity over time.

Pregnant, postpartum women and persons with cardiac events may need to take extra precautions and seek medical advice before striving to achieve the recommended levels of physical activity.

Urban and environmental policies can have a huge potential to increase the physical activity levels in the population.

Examples of these policies include: ensuring that walking, cycling and other forms of active transportation are accessible and safe for all; or that schools have safe spaces and facilities for students to spend their free time actively.