WHO defines physical activity as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. Physical activity refers to all movement including during leisure time, for transport to get to and from places, or as part of a person’s work. Both moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity improve health.
Popular ways to be active include walking, cycling, wheeling, sports, active recreation and play, and can be done at any level of skill and for enjoyment by everybody.
Regular physical activity is proven to help prevent and manage noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and several cancers. It also helps prevent hypertension, maintain healthy body weight and can improve mental health, quality of life and well-being.
WHO guidelines and recommendations provide details for different age groups and specific population groups on how much physical activity is needed for good health.
For children under 5 years of age
In a 24-hour day, infants (less than 1 year) should:
In a 24-hour day, children 1-2 years of age should:
In a 24-hour day, children 3-4 years of age should:
Children and adolescents aged 5-17 years
Adults aged 65 years and above
Pregnant and postpartum women
All pregnant and postpartum women without contraindication should:
People living with chronic conditions (hypertension, type 2 diabetes, HIV and cancer survivors)
Children and adolescents living with disability:
Adults living with disability:
Regular physical activity, such as walking, cycling, wheeling, doing sports or active recreation, provides significant benefits for health. Some physical activity is better than doing none. By becoming more active throughout the day in relatively simple ways, people can easily achieve the recommended activity levels.
Physical inactivity is one of the leading risk factors for noncommunicable diseases mortality. People who are insufficiently active have a 20% to 30% increased risk of death compared to people who are sufficiently active.
Regular physical activity can:
In children and adolescents, physical activity improves:
In adults and older adults, higher levels of physical activity improves:
For pregnant and post-partum women
Physical activity confers the following maternal and fetal health benefits: a decreased risk of:
Health risks of sedentary behaviour
Lives are becoming increasingly sedentary, through the use of motorized transport and the increased use of screens for work, education and recreation. Evidence shows higher amounts of sedentary behaviour are associated with the following poor health outcomes:
In children and adolescents:
Levels of physical activity globally
Increased levels of physical inactivity have negative impacts on health systems, the environment, economic development, community well-being and quality of life.
Globally, 28% of adults aged 18 and over were not active enough in 2016 (men 23% and women 32%). This means they do not meet the global recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes vigorous-intensity physical activity per week.
In high-income countries, 26% of men and 35% of women were insufficiently physically active, as compared to 12% of men and 24% of women in low-income countries. Low or decreasing physical activity levels often correspond with a high or rising gross national product.
The drop in physical activity is partly due to inaction during leisure time and sedentary behaviour on the job and at home. Likewise, an increase in the use of "passive" modes of transportation also contributes to insufficient physical activity.
Globally, 81% of adolescents aged 11-17 years were insufficiently physically active in 2016. Adolescent girls were less active than adolescent boys, with 85% vs. 78% not meeting WHO recommendations of at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity per day.
How to increase physical activity?
Countries and communities must take action to provide everyone with more opportunities to be active, in order to increase physical activity. This requires a collective effort, both national and local, across different sectors and disciplines to implement policy and solutions appropriate to a country’s cultural and social environment to promote, enable and encourage physical activity.
Policies to increase physical activity aim to ensure that:
In 2018 WHO launched a new Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030 which outlines four policy actions areas and 20 specific policy recommendations and actions for Member States, international partners and WHO, to increase physical activity worldwide. The global action plan calls for countries, cities and communities to adopt a ‘whole-of-system’ response involving all sectors and stakeholders taking action at global, regional and local levels to provide the safe and supportive environments and more opportunities to help people increase their levels of physical activity.
In 2018, the World Health Assembly agreed on a global target to reduce physical inactivity by 15% by 2030 and align with the Sustainable Development Goals. The commitments made by world leaders to develop ambitious national SDG responses provides an opportunity to refocus and renew efforts at promoting physical activity.
The WHO toolkit ACTIVE launched in 2019 provides more specific technical guidance on how to start and implement the 20 policy recommendations outlined in the global action plan.
The global action plan and ACTIVE propose policy options that can be adapted and tailored to local culture and contexts to help increase levels of physical activity globally, these include:
To help countries and communities measure physical activity in adults, WHO has developed the Global Physical Activity Questionnaire (GPAQ). This questionnaire helps countries monitor insufficient physical activity as one of the main NCD risk factors. The GPAQ has been integrated into the WHO STEPwise approach, which is a surveillance system for the main NCD risk factors.
To assess physical activity among schoolchildren WHO has collaborated on a questionnaire module which has been integrated into the Global school-based student health survey (GSHS). The GSHS is a WHO/US CDC surveillance project designed to help countries measure and assess the behavioural risk factors and protective factors in 10 key areas among young people aged 13 to 17 years.
WHO is also working with international experts on the development of methods and instruments to assess physical activity in children under the age of five years of age and under 10 years of age. In addition, WHO is testing the use of digital and wearable technologies, such as pedometers and accelerometers, in national population surveillance of physical activity in adults. This work will be extended to include children and will inform the development of updated global guidance on the monitoring of physical activity and sedentary behaviours.
To support a ‘whole of system’ response, WHO is collaborating across multiple sectors to strengthen coordination, advocacy and alignment of policy and actions. WHO has established partnerships to help support Member States in their efforts to promote physical activity – these include working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to advance and align the implementation of GAPPA and the Kazan Action Plan on physical education, sports and physical activity. WHO is also working with many other UN agencies in the shared agenda to promote Sport for Development and Peace. Within the sports system WHO is collaborating with the International Olympic Committee and International Sports Federations, The International Federation of Football Associations, FIFA, and others to support and strengthen the promotion of health through sports and the sports for all agenda.