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The first Lancet series on physical activity and global health quantified the startling annual global mortality due to physical inactivity—more than 5 million deaths spread across the world, the very definition of a pandemic.1,2 Since 2012, we estimate that an additional 45 million lives have been lost due to the continued lack of systematic action to intervene on physical inactivity.3,4 Although there is justified criticism on how some countries have handled the current global pandemic of COVID-19, the failure to better address the longstanding public health crisis of physical inactivity has been largely ignored. Why is there continued inattention to a global public health problem that is large, not improving, and seemingly solvable with evidence-based strategies?3 As with most major public health issues, progress on physical inactivity requires surveillance, evidence, prioritization, investment, and leadership, all leading to policy action at global, regional, national, and local levels. Evidence is plentiful regarding health impact,5 prevalence,6 and interventions.3,7 Here, we briefly examine progress, or lack thereof, in policy development and implementation globally and nationally.

There has been progress over the past decade. This is probably best exemplified by the 2018 launch of the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Action Plan for Physical Activity—a comprehensive, evidence-based, modern, multisectoral public health plan created with extensive input from around the world.8 WHO released updated recommendations for physical activity at the end of 2020, a second example of well-crafted global policy for physical activity. So, global policy development for physical activity has progressed in obvious ways since 2012.

What about implementation at a global level? Has WHO followed up with funding, staffing, and programs to take these policy documents off the shelf and make them real? There is a glimmer of light here, as WHO headquarters has created a small new physical activity unit nested within health promotion, and the WHO Europe office continues to support a network, annual conference, and multiple programmatic and policy initiatives around physical activity, obesity, and noncommunicable diseases. However, little to no action on physical activity has taken place at the other 5 WHO regional offices—no dedicated staff, no budget, no evidence of physical activity policy or programs on their websites, and no perceptible implementation of the Global Action Plan for Physical Activity.

One might argue that the national level is where physical activity policy really needs to be operationalized into population-based programs. The Global Observatory for Physical Activity evaluates national physical activity policy, surveillance, and research, and in 2020 surveyed 173 countries on both policy development and implementation.9 In contrast to a decade ago, most (92%) of the 76 countries that responded now have national plans and policies for physical activity. Many also have published national physical activity guidelines (62%) and have quantifiable national targets for physical activity (52%). However, implementation remains spotty with only about half of policy components implemented, and self-reported effectiveness of national physical policy and programs was low to moderate. These policies were predominantly developed in high-income countries, and adaptation and implementation in low- and middle-income countries remains a pressing need.9 Perhaps more worrisome is a recent study that noted the number of countries adopting physical activity policies fell between 2015 and 2017.10 Physical activity may be a “flavor of the day” that momentarily catches the attention of national policy makers before slipping back into obscurity.11

Implementing physical activity policy has proven challenging for health ministries, in part because most of the societal levers that influence population levels of physical activity are in “nonhealth” sectors such as urban planning and development, education, environmental protection, and transportation. Without effective cross-sectoral collaboration that includes multiple sectors, even the best policies will have little impact on population levels of physical activity. Cross-sector collaboration is difficult and usually requires leadership from presidents, prime ministers, or governors. Because leadership changes frequently, so do priorities, reducing the likelihood of sustained multisector efforts. A cascade from global to national to local levels is a critical missing piece. Perhaps, the local (municipal) level, where cross-sector collaboration is easier and more common, is where we should be evaluating physical activity policy and implementation? Unfortunately, there is no standardized global database of physical activity policy for cities so we must rely on case studies drawn from the enormous heterogeneity of city public health efforts.3,12 There are stellar examples of cities in both high-income countries (i.e., Copenhagen) and low- and middle-income countries (i.e., Bogotá and Mexico City) that have transformed public space to prioritize pedestrians, cycling, public transit, and green space in ways that have increased physical activity.3,7,12 However, many of these transformations occurred without much formal public health policy or leadership from the public health sector.

We have an odd dichotomy in which physical activity policy development is quite good at the global and national levels but implementation is poor, in contrast to impressive implementation in at least some municipalities in the near absence of public health policy or leadership. What to make of this? Perhaps the key roles for public health are agenda-setting and consistent guidance at the global and national levels, coupled with a much greater emphasis on partnering with other sectors at the local level.

To improve the implementation of physical activity policies and programs at the national and local levels will require more physical activity capacity, investment, and partnering within and by health departments and ministries, and perhaps within other sectors that seem to have been more effective at addressing physical inactivity on the ground. The need for an appropriate share of public health resources for physical activity remains a defining challenge of the field.11 Even as the world’s attention is focused on the threats of the COVID-19 pandemic, the physical inactivity pandemic continues to be a leading cause of morbidity and mortality. The 5 million-plus people who die prematurely of physical inactivity each year should also be cause for concern, and they deserve a reasonable investment in interventions known to be effective.

References

  • 1.

    Kohl HW 3rd, Craig CL, Lambert EV, et al. The pandemic of physical inactivity: Global action for public health. Lancet. 2012;380(9838):294305. PubMed ID: 22818941 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60898-8

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 2.

    Lee IM, Shiroma EJ, Lobelo F, Puska P, Blair SN, Katzmarzyk PT. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. Lancet. 2012;380(9838):219229. PubMed ID: 22818936 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61031-9

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 3.

    Reis RS, Salvo D, Ogilvie D, et al. Scaling up physical activity interventions worldwide: stepping up to larger and smarter approaches to get people moving. Lancet. 2016;388(10051):13371348. PubMed ID: 27475273 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30728-0

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Sallis JF, Bull F, Guthold R, et al. Progress in physical activity over the Olympic quadrennium. Lancet. 2016;388(10051):13251336 PubMed ID: 27475270 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30581-5

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 5.

    US Department of Health and Human Services. 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2018. https://health.gov/our-work/physical-activity/current-guidelines/scientific-report.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 6.

    Guthold R, Stevens GA, Riley LM, Bull FC. Worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity from 2001 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 358 population-based surveys with 1·9 million participants. Lancet Glob Health. 2018;6(10):e1077e1086. PubMed ID: 30193830 doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(18)30357-7

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 7.

    Heath GW, Parra DC, Sarmiento OL, et al. Evidence-based intervention in physical activity: lessons from around the world. Lancet. 2012;380(9838):272281. PubMed ID:22818939 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60816-2

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 8.

    Wold Health Organization. Global action plan on physical activity 2018–2030: More active people for a healthier world: at-a-glance. 2018. https://health.gov/our-work/physical-activity/current-guidelines/scientific-report.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 9.

    Pogrmilovic BK, Varela AR, Pratt M, et al. National physical activity and sedentary behaviour policies in 76 countries: availability, comprehensiveness, implementation, and effectiveness. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2020;17(1):113. PubMed ID: 32948193 doi:10.1186/s12966-020-01022-6

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 10.

    Allen LN, Nicholson BD, Yeung BY, Goiana-da-Silva F. Implementation of non-communicable disease policies: a geopolitical analysis of 151 countries. Lancet Glob Health. 2020;8(1):e50e58. PubMed ID: 31813787 doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(19)30446-2

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 11.

    Pratt M, Varela AR, Salvo D, Kohl HW III, Ding D. Attacking the pandemic of physical inactivity: what is holding us back? Br J Sports Med. 2020;54(13):760762. PubMed ID: 31704698. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2019-101392

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 12.

    Salvo D, Garcia L, Reis R, et al. Physical activity promotion and the United Nations sustainable development goals: building synergies to maximize impact. [published online ahead of print, July 13, 2021].J Phys Act Health. doi:10.1123/jpah.2021-0413

    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

Pratt is with the University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA. Ramirez Varela is with Los Andes University, Bogotá, Colombia. Kohl is with the University of Texas, Austin, TX, USA. Klepac Pogrmilovic and Pedišić are with Victoria University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. Sallis is with the University of California San Diego, San Diego, CA, USA.

Prattt (mipratt@health.ucsd.edu) is corresponding author.
  • 1.

    Kohl HW 3rd, Craig CL, Lambert EV, et al. The pandemic of physical inactivity: Global action for public health. Lancet. 2012;380(9838):294305. PubMed ID: 22818941 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60898-8

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 2.

    Lee IM, Shiroma EJ, Lobelo F, Puska P, Blair SN, Katzmarzyk PT. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. Lancet. 2012;380(9838):219229. PubMed ID: 22818936 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61031-9

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 3.

    Reis RS, Salvo D, Ogilvie D, et al. Scaling up physical activity interventions worldwide: stepping up to larger and smarter approaches to get people moving. Lancet. 2016;388(10051):13371348. PubMed ID: 27475273 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30728-0

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Sallis JF, Bull F, Guthold R, et al. Progress in physical activity over the Olympic quadrennium. Lancet. 2016;388(10051):13251336 PubMed ID: 27475270 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30581-5

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 5.

    US Department of Health and Human Services. 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2018. https://health.gov/our-work/physical-activity/current-guidelines/scientific-report.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 6.

    Guthold R, Stevens GA, Riley LM, Bull FC. Worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity from 2001 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 358 population-based surveys with 1·9 million participants. Lancet Glob Health. 2018;6(10):e1077e1086. PubMed ID: 30193830 doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(18)30357-7

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 7.

    Heath GW, Parra DC, Sarmiento OL, et al. Evidence-based intervention in physical activity: lessons from around the world. Lancet. 2012;380(9838):272281. PubMed ID:22818939 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60816-2

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 8.

    Wold Health Organization. Global action plan on physical activity 2018–2030: More active people for a healthier world: at-a-glance. 2018. https://health.gov/our-work/physical-activity/current-guidelines/scientific-report.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 9.

    Pogrmilovic BK, Varela AR, Pratt M, et al. National physical activity and sedentary behaviour policies in 76 countries: availability, comprehensiveness, implementation, and effectiveness. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2020;17(1):113. PubMed ID: 32948193 doi:10.1186/s12966-020-01022-6

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 10.

    Allen LN, Nicholson BD, Yeung BY, Goiana-da-Silva F. Implementation of non-communicable disease policies: a geopolitical analysis of 151 countries. Lancet Glob Health. 2020;8(1):e50e58. PubMed ID: 31813787 doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(19)30446-2

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 11.

    Pratt M, Varela AR, Salvo D, Kohl HW III, Ding D. Attacking the pandemic of physical inactivity: what is holding us back? Br J Sports Med. 2020;54(13):760762. PubMed ID: 31704698. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2019-101392

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 12.

    Salvo D, Garcia L, Reis R, et al. Physical activity promotion and the United Nations sustainable development goals: building synergies to maximize impact. [published online ahead of print, July 13, 2021].J Phys Act Health. doi:10.1123/jpah.2021-0413

    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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