Intended for healthcare professionals


Global health agenda on non-communicable diseases: has WHO set a smart goal for physical activity?

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 21 January 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h23
  1. Philipe de Souto Barreto, researcher1
  1. 1Gerontopole of Toulouse, INSERM UMR1027, University Hospital of Toulouse, 31000 Toulouse, France
  1. philipebarreto81{at}
  • Accepted 17 December 2014

Philipe de Souto Barreto argues that, to reduce premature mortality, policies should focus on getting fully inactive people to do a little physical activity rather than strive for the entire population to meet current physical activity recommendations

As part of their Global Action Plan in 2013 to reduce the avoidable burden of non-communicable diseases the World Health Organization proposed a 25% relative reduction in the risk of premature mortality from cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases by 2025.1 The Global Action Plan recognised the importance of four risk factors in achieving this goal—smoking, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity. WHO’s main goal regarding physical activity is to achieve a 10% relative reduction in the prevalence of insufficient physical activity, which is defined as <150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week, or equivalent, for adults aged 18 or over (box 1).

Box 1: Definitions of physical activity

  • Sufficient physical activity—Meeting or exceeding current public health guidelines of 30 minutes of moderate activity five times a week or 20 minutes of vigorous activity three times a week, or equivalent

  • Insufficient physical activity—Failing to meet current public health guidelines for physical activity

  • Somewhat active—People who do some moderate or vigorous physical activity but not enough to meet current public health guidelines

  • Fully sedentary or fully inactive—People who do no moderate or vigorous physical activity regularly

WHO’s policy focuses on the ideal goal of 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, but here I argue that getting inactive people to do a little bit of physical activity, even if they don’t meet the recommendations, might provide greater population health gains.

Global physical activity

Physical activity promotes physical and mental health in different populations of all ages2 3 4 and is associated with the prevention of several non-communicable diseases5 6 7 …

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