Is physical activity a reality for all?

In the WHO European Region, one in five people takes little or no physical activity, with higher levels of inactivity in eastern countries. In the European Union (EU), two thirds of the adult population does not reach recommended levels of activity. As a result, physical inactivity is estimated to deprive Europeans of over 8 million days of healthy life every year, on average. Everybody is not affected in the same way, however.

Maintaining sufficient levels of physical activity is becoming more and more difficult, as most daily environments have changed significantly in recent years. The causes of physical inactivity are predominantly the result of systemic and environmental factors, which have made daily living and working environments increasingly sedentary. Greater distances between homes, workplaces, shops and places for leisure activities have increased the use of cars and led to a decline in walking and cycling. Simultaneously, in many contexts, road safety remains a concern, whereby it is, or is perceived to be, not safe to engage in active transport. Children and adolescents spend more time in school or day-care settings than ever before; academic demands are increasing, which can reduce the time dedicated to physical education and active play. Other factors that are believed to have influenced levels of physical activity include the quality of neighbourhood environments, increasing sedentary forms of entertainment, such as screen-based activities, and technical aids such as elevators.

Who takes exercise?

Occupation, income, education and the environment in which people live greatly influence their choices in leisure time. Higher proportions of unemployed people are sedentary than those in employment, and white-collar workers are twice as likely as manual workers to take part in sports. Lack of nearby sports facilities, transport or sufficient money may stop those with low incomes from taking up leisure physical activities. Where potential activities are free or inexpensive, such as those in parks or the neighbourhood, people may live in places where the rates or fear of crime is inhibiting. Further, poorer people in general have less awareness of the benefits of an active lifestyle. Richer people may have the means to pay for costly activities, more leisure time, higher awareness of the benefits and more social pressure to exercise.

Vulnerable people

People who are very young, very old or have disabilities, families in precarious circumstances, migrants, ethnic minorities and women are particularly vulnerable to physical inactivity. Children, especially among the poor, have more difficulty in affording the healthiest food choices and opportunities to be active; thus, they have a higher probability of unhealthy behaviour, such as spending more time watching television, increasing their risk of becoming obese. Eurobarometer surveys from 2003 and 2006 revealed that women tend to be less physically active than men across EU countries, and that the prevalence of obesity is highest among women from more disadvantaged groups, including immigrants.

In addition, there are significant disparities in physical activity levels among Member States of the European Region, especially between the north and south and the east and west.

All these factors have implications for policy responses and local governments' opportunities to create and maintain activity-friendly cities. Evidence from the health sector is compelling: at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity taken 5 days per week reduces the risk of disorders related to inactivity (such as cardiovascular disease, adult diabetes and obesity) by about 50%, and substantially decreases hypertension and the psychological consequences of a sedentary life (stress, anxiety, depression) and possibly delaying the effects of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.

Making cities healthier

Taking stock of the health benefits of active lifestyles, health sectors can stimulate collaboration with other relevant sectors to make neighbourhoods more physical activity friendly. Urban planners and the transport sector can encourage building cycling paths in urban areas, rejuvenate inner-city areas and create safer and more attractive green spaces, safer playing areas and safer streets. In collaboration with the sport and the finance sectors, they can promote and increase the number of low-cost and after-school sports facilities.

What we do

WHO/Europe works to promote evidence-based good practice on physical activity that can reduce the socioeconomic inequalities in obesity and other noncommunicable diseases. It advises and supports countries to develop national physical activity policies and action plans. WHO/Europe has collected those currently in action into an information system aimed at providing Member States with easily accessible information on physical activity promotion and at disseminating existing experiences to support policy developments. In addition, WHO/Europe also advocates getting more people engaged in active lifestyles through raising their understanding of the importance and the opportunities of moving for health throughout the life-course.