Stopping Inertia in its Tracks: Addressing the scourge of physical inactivity

By Daniel Kotzen

With more than 3 million deaths attributable to insufficient physical inactivity each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) member states indicated their pledge to tackle this global scourge with their commitment to reduce physical inactivity rates by 10 percent by 2025. Unfortunately, a recent article published in Lancet Global Health suggests that if current trends persist, this target is unlikely to be met. As one of the leading risk factors for non-communicable diseases, imperiling the lives of more than 1.4 billion adults who are at higher risk for developing diseases ranging from cardiovascular disease and diabetes to several types of cancer, inertia is no longer an option.

While the Lancet Global Health’s quantification of the issue is commendable, with an analysis encompassing 1.9 million participants from 168 countries and representing 96 percent of the world’s population, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this study’s methodology. Across the countries, a wide variety of self-reported surveys were used to measure physical activity, many of which included missing data for which the researchers had to impute estimates to conduct the analysis.  People tend to overreport in line with social-desirability bias and so, if anything, the figures are likely to understate the problem of physical inactivity. Furthermore, the physical activity guidelines set forth by the WHO of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity serve as a reasonable baseline recommendation, but are by no means the gold standard in achieving optimal health outcomes. The CDC itself notes that the more activity, the more health benefits one gains, suggesting that for even greater health benefits, one should aim to achieve 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and muscle-strengthening activities.

Regardless of the precise figures, the takeaway remains the same: a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach that draws on resources and insights from government, industry, and beyond is required to effect positive change.

In higher-income nations, where individuals are welded to their computers and phones at both work and home, possess the increasing ability to order almost anything without leaving their front door, and have the option of hopping in an air-conditioned vehicle at the drop of a hat (or click of an app), physical activity is no longer a core feature of daily life. Even low-income nations – where, out of necessity, individuals have historically engaged in more activity – are experiencing a worrying downturn in physical activity.

How, then, does one begin to tackle a problem like physical inactivity? The WHO has set out an ambitious agenda in their Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030: More Active People for a Healthier World, which astutely notes that a “system-based” approach that combines upstream policies (focused on improving social, cultural, economic, and environmental factors) and downstream factors focused on the individual is required.

At both the individual and the corporate level, Vitality has found that the alignment between the right technology, science, and incentives leads to sustained improvements in physical activity and, more broadly, health. Vitality continuously seeks to find new and innovative ways to incentivize individuals across the risk spectrum to become more active, whether by:

However, the onus lies not only with the individuals but also the environment in which they find themselves. At a more macro level, this means considering dimensions as varied as workplace culture and design, whether that be in the form of onsite gyms, use of stairs rather than elevators, or beyond; sustainable environments; sustainable transportation policies that promote active and safe methods of commuting; and urban planning and design that facilitate active lifestyles.

Meeting the WHO’s 2030 agenda will not be achieved through the moribund piecemeal initiatives of yore – it requires strong visionary leadership and collaboration across traditional public health channels, the private sector, and beyond. As an organization that is committed to enhancing and protecting the lives of people around the world, and with Shared Value permeating its DNA, Vitality welcomes the opportunity to join in the collective efforts to tackle global physical inactivity with the urgency this serious issue demands.

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