Saturday, 25th February 2023

WHO recommendations for increasing physical activity

Exercise if good for us!

We all (well nearly all) know that regular exercise is good for us but few of us take enough of it. The percentage of the population which reaches the DoH recommendations for exercise is about 15 to 20% and among older citizens the proportion is much less.

So why don’t we do it? 

Two reasons for this reluctance spring to mind. the first is that we don’t understand just how important exercise is for maintaining good health. My mission in life is to correct this – so just keep reading!
The second is that it is not made easy enough to comply – there needs to be more in place to help us to do what is good for us. WHO and the OECD have just published their thoughts on this point (BMJ 2023380 doi:


The report

The Report estimates that adequate exercise would prevent 10 000 premature deaths a year and save billions in healthcare spending throughout the EU.  The latest Eurobarometer survey found that 45% of people in the EU say that they never exercise or play sport. If the recommended levels of physical activity could be reached this could prevent 11.5 million new cases of non-communicable diseases by 2050, the Report estimates.  If EU countries collectively tackle physical inactivity throughout their populations, they will save nearly €8bn (£7.12bn; $8.54bn) a year.

The Report gives examples of public policies that could be adopted to help increase physical activity to the recommended level of at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity activity.

Here are a few of their suggestions which include initiatives already in place in a number of European countries:

Policy options for increasing physical activity

School based interventions

  • Physical education classes (such as the mandatory daily physical education classes in Hungary’s schools),

  • Active school breaks,

  • Funding for after school activities (for example, Lithuania funds after-school informal programmes at sports clubs with freelance teachers), and

  • Active transport to and from school (Finland has a scheme to help schools implement policies promoting active travel to school and road safety improvements).

Workplace based interventions

  • Counselling and information;

  • Behavioural strategies, such as point-of-decision prompts to take the stairs;

  • Environmental strategies, such as standing desks (Bulgaria has a programme that helps people whose jobs involve sitting for long periods, which recommends workouts, physiotherapy, and yoga therapy, as well as remedial exercises that can be done in the office and at home); and

  • Active transport to and from the office (Ireland has a scheme to help companies promote walking, cycling, public transport, car sharing, the use of technology instead of travel, and flexible working practices).

Interventions in healthcare settings

  • General behavioural counselling,

  • Prescribing physical activity (for example, written prescription notes in Sweden are issued with the recommended type and dose of physical activity, possible contraindications, and a plan for follow-up), and

  • Healthcare led exercise interventions.

Urban design, environment, and transport policies

  • Policies to improve road safety;

  • Planning guidelines to increase parks, trails, and other green spaces (Croatia has established a nationwide scheme to develop trails and parks to encourage physical activity); and

  • Investments in cycling lanes or public transport.

Interventions in the sports sector

  • Programmes to increase sport participation (Austria has a programme to build cooperation between sports clubs and primary schools to allow children to take part free of charge),

  • Investment in sports infrastructure (in Belgium the government provides subsidies to open sports and physical activity infrastructure after school), and

  • Funding for local sports clubs.

  • Information and communication policies

  • Physical activity guidelines,

  • National campaigns, and

  • Apps with information about the availability of resources and activities (such as Localiza Salud in Spain).

What’s to do?

There is no shortage of actions which could be taken to increase the general levels of physical activity of our population. What is needed is the political will to put them in place. Sadly, despite the obvious need to reduce the pressure on our health services, our politicians have shown no interest in the importance of such actions.

If any political party includes the promotion of physical activity in its manifesto it will get my vote!


Next time I will talk about how much exercise we should and do take.

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