Fitness Industry Can Help Make Physical Activity Contagious

The World Health Organization is turning to the fitness industry to help prevent the leading causes of death globally. First, we need to innovate to get more people into gyms, says the WHO’s Dr. Fiona Bull.

When you think of diseases, what springs to mind? If popular games and movies like Pandemic or Contagion are any indication, there's a good chance it's highly contagious diseases like the flu, measles, or Zika. However, if you look at the diseases doing the most damage—the ones we should really be afraid of—you won't find them contained in quarantine zones or in any high-budget Hollywood movies. You will find these diseases causing millions of deaths globally every year.

We're talking about noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like heart disease and stroke, which for the last 15 years, have been the leading causes of death worldwide. The good news is that the World Health Organization (WHO) is turning to the fitness industry to help do something about these diseases.

Second Who Dialogue Sports Group Photo Column Width

IHRSA and other industry representatives at the second WHO Sports Sector dialogue.

NCDs are not transmitted from one person to another, but their prevention—in this case, physical activity—can be contagious, and in a way, that is what the WHO is counting on. The WHO says lack of physical activity—or physical inactivity—is estimated to be the leading cause for approximately 21–25% of breast and colon cancers and 27% of diabetes diagnoses.

What’s Being Done to Help?

Physical activity is so vital to world health that the WHO spent a full year developing and creating the Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030 (GAPPA), during which time IHRSA submitted comments on the draft. GAPPA has four objectives that aim to ensure all people have access to safe environments and opportunities to be physically active in their daily lives, improving individual and community health—ultimately contributing to the social, cultural, and economic development of all nations.

The four objectives of GAPPA are:

  1. Create Active Societies
  2. Create Active Environments
  3. Create Active People
  4. Create Active Systems

With the help of the fitness industry, the WHO hopes the strategic objectives and policy actions listed in GAPPA will lead to a 15% relative reduction of physical inactivity in adults and minors globally by 2030. A reduction of this size would help curb the global cost of physical inactivity—currently estimated to be INT$68 billion per year in direct health care costs and lost productivity.

Group Class Fitness Industry Make Exercise Contagious Column Image

Physical Activity Is a Must-have

Being physically active is no longer a nice-to-have, it is a must-have. Fiona Bull, MBE, Ph.D., Msc., WHO program manager, prevention of noncommunicable diseases, says, “People were designed to move, and exercise is essential for every part of our biological systems.” Bull says if you are in a position to talk to your local policymakers you should emphasize the extensive and well-established health benefits of exercise, but also the consequences of not being active. Which, as we mentioned above, can lead to a wide range of diseases that have health costs at the individual and economic level.

Bull says the sports and fitness industry has "a very big role to play." Countries around the world have started to recognize the need to increase physical activity, and the fitness industry is uniquely positioned to spread physically active lifestyles from one person to another by making sure the environments, programs, and opportunities are there and tailored for people of all ages and abilities. A side effect of which would be attracting the people who are least active.

"We have to be innovative. [People] are not coming to the gym for a reason," says Bull. "It comes down to culture and context, and really getting to know who your client is." She recommends creating this change in culture by partnering with local businesses and organizations and adding more social aspects to physical activity. Show your community all the fun ways to be active. It's all about getting more people more active.

Programs that focus on community engagement can lead to more physically active populations. Bull says the WHO has seen those types of programs work, and the WHO is very interested in working with all the stakeholders—including health clubs—to accomplish the GAPPA goals. In December 2018, IHRSA and other key global organizations attended the WHO's first ever Sports Sector dialogue, which Dr. Bull called a big success. A second dialogue took place in February 2019 to identify projects the industry can help implement in the coming years.

“We have to be innovative. [People] are not coming to the gym for a reason.”

Fiona Bull, Program Manager, Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases

World Health Organization - Geneva, Switzerland

Leading the Way

The fitness industry can lead the way by increasing our promotion of physical activity and the need to reduce sedentary behavior. We can partner with and guide businesses, organizations, and local and national governments to create physical activity programs and incentives to help their employees, members, and constituents get more active.

Worldwide, one in four adults and three in four adolescents (aged 11–17 years) do not meet the WHO’s global recommendations for physical activity. It is critical that we shift to supporting and valuing regular physical activity. We know people are more likely to be active when the people around them value exercise.

Activating a community is one of the most powerful ways to change behavior and social norms, this is how the fitness industry can help make physical activity contagious. Let's empower people and communities to take control of their health, actively participate in the development of policies, reduce barriers, and provide the motivation to be active.

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Kaitee Anderson Fernandez

Kaitee Anderson Fernandez previously served as IHRSA's Director of Creative Content—a position that created digital, print, and video content to help tell the story behind IHRSA's advocacy and public policy efforts.