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Inactivity Responsible for Millions of Deaths, Says WHO - 2002-04-07

The World Health Organization says sedentary lifestyles are contributing to about two million deaths a year that could be easily prevented. The Geneva-based health organization is using Sunday's celebration of World Health Day to urge people to get more exercise.

The World Health Organization says the world is experiencing a rapidly spreading epidemic of inactivity. It is urging people to walk more, eat better and stop smoking. It says the statistics show this simple formula will help keep people healthy and save a great many lives. WHO official Pekka Puska says sedentary lifestyles double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity. He says inactivity also increases the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, depression and anxiety.

"We estimate that somewhere between 60 and 85 percent of people in the world are quite sedentary, with practically no physical activity," he said. "I mean occupations are changing, transportation is motorized, people sit at home and watch television. We estimate in WHO that out of a little bit more than 50 million deaths annually in the world, something like close to two million could be attributed to physical inactivity."

WHO says these so-called lifestyle diseases no longer are just a problem in rich countries. They also have become big killers in poor countries. It says chronic diseases caused by lack of physical activity, increased smoking and poor diet now are leading causes of death in every part of the world. The only exception is sub-Saharan Africa where infectious diseases such as AIDS are still the major problem. Mr. Puska says more than 60 percent of Americans are overweight and 26 percent are obese. But he notes countries such as Egypt and Mexico are catching up. And in cities in China and India, more people are adopting a sedentary lifestyle and indulging in fast food diets.

"If there were a pill that could help prevent heart disease, several cancers, hypertension, osteoporosis, depression, headache and so on, that would be an enormous commercial success, that pill. And, actually, our collaborating project in San Paulo has such a pill. It is called 'Agitol.' The instruction is that before you take a pill, you must walk for 15 minutes and after the pill, you walk for another 15 minutes," Mr. Puska laughed.

The World Health Organization says regular exercise and a nutritious diet can prevent most of these chronic illnesses. It says fancy gyms and expensive equipment are not necessary. A 30 minute walk everyday or a bit of dancing will do the job. But WHO adds governments also have a job to do. They must create a good environment for physical exercise by making sure streets are safer for people to walk and ride bicycles and ensuring that sports are a part of every child's school day.