1.4 billion adults risk disease from sedentary lifestyle

sedentary lifestyle

More than a quarter of the world’s adults (1.4 billion) have greater risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, dementia and cardiovascular disease, because they do too little physical activity, according to data from the first study to estimate global physical activity trends over time. The study was undertaken by researchers from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and published on 4 September in The Lancet Global Health journal.

In Britain alone, type 2 diabetes costs the NHS £10bn per year. It is a condition that can be reversed through exercise and good diet.

“Unlike other major global health risks, levels of insufficient physical activity are not falling worldwide, on average, and over a quarter of all adults are not reaching the recommended levels of physical activity for good health,” warns the study’s lead author, Dr Regina Guthold of the WHO, Switzerland.

The article names active transport as a prime solution, and car use as a key problem: National policy needs to be implemented to encourage non-motorised modes of transportation, such as walking and cycling… …Effective policies include improved provision of cycling and walking infrastructure, improving road safety.

From 2001-2016, substantial changes in insufficient physical activity levels were recorded in multiple regions. Key findings include:

  • The regions with the highest increase in insufficient activity over time were high-income Western countries (from 31% in 2001 to 37% in 2016). Countries from these regions driving this trend include Germany, Italy Hungary, Portugal and UK, as well as the USA.
  • There has been an increase of 5% in prevalence of insufficient activity in high-income countries, from 32% in 2001 to 37% in 2016. In comparison, there has been an average rise of just 0.2% amongst low-income countries (16.0% to 16.2%).
  • In wealthier countries, like Western Europe, the transition towards more sedentary occupations, recreation and motorised transport could explain the higher levels of inactivity, while in lower-income countries, more activity is undertaken at work and for transport, according to the authors. While declines in occupational and domestic physical activity are inevitable as countries prosper, and use of technology increases Governments must provide and maintain infrastructure that promotes increased walking and cycling for transport.

“Regions with increasing levels of insufficient physical activity are a major concern for public health and the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs),” says Dr Guthold.

“Almost three quarters of countries report having a policy or action plan to tackle physical inactivity, few have been implemented to have national impact. Countries will need to improve policy implementation to increase physical activity opportunities and encourage more people to be physically active” says Dr Fiona Bull, one of the co-authors of the study.

The European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) has worked with WHO and the European Commission for the last decade to bring this message to member states, cities and regions.

“We can save 100,000 lives in Europe each year if every adult adds 15 minutes of walking or cycling,” said Dr Randy Rzewnicki, ECF’s Health Policy Officer, citing the WHO HEAT tool that shows how many people will live longer by changing their daily transport habits.

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  1. Jeremy Colson


    Many thanks for an excellent article, but i think a couple of points need to be made.
    Firstly, although type 2 diabetes T2D can indeed be reversed, some of the effects of a sedentary life-style can not be reversed. For example, the damage to arteries caused by low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) can indeed be addressed by exercise and better diet, but the damage already caused cannot be reversed.
    The second point is that although cycling is a good way of reversing T2D, it should not be forgotten that walking is approximately three times less efficient than cycling over a given distance and is therefore a more effective form of exercise.

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