03/04/2014 07:22 pm ET Updated May 04, 2014

Move It -- Or Lose It

Which is more dangerous, driving too fast on a crowded highway or spending hours sitting on the couch watching television? The answer seems obvious, but it isn't. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), last year up to 5 million people worldwide died of illnesses caused by a lack of physical activity -- nearly four times the number who died in traffic accidents. Seven out of 10 of us simply do not move enough to stay healthy.

Athletes from around the world competed at the recent Sochi Olympic Winter Games. But for far too many of us glued to our televisions, participation in sports has become vicarious -- we watch them from the comfort of home. We are a passive audience.

Simply put, life as a "couch potato" puts you at risk. In the long term, you're safer parachuting, rock climbing, or arguing with a heavyweight boxer than lying around at home. Sooner or later you will pay for the lack of exercise, and that can be painful.

Roughly 30 percent of cases of diabetes and ischemic heart disease are tied to a lack of physical activity, and almost a quarter of the cases of breast and colon cancer. The cardiovascular link is especially significant in the United States, Europe and the Arab Gulf States, but it is rising rapidly in developing countries too, as we struggle against climbing diabetes rates worldwide.

Medical experts are only beginning to realize the remarkable degree to which exercise, diet and disease interact and recent discoveries are nothing short of amazing. Physical activity plays a role in the health of the brain, the prevention of maladies like depression, and even in delaying or preventing the onset of dementia in the elderly.

If you want to lower your bad cholesterol to prevent heart disease, what is one of the first things a doctor will recommend? Exercise.

Many physicians not only see exercise as prevention, but even as a contributor to recovery from disease. There is evidence, for example, that a woman recovering from breast cancer is well served by embarking on a rigorous course of cardiovascular exercise. The same is true of other cancers. The role of physical activity in recovering from cardiovascular disease is even more pronounced and well documented.

Fourteen years ago, all the world's leaders gathered at UN Headquarters in New York to mark the new millennium and adopted the Millennium Development Goals, which set targets for improving health, food security, and education with a deadline of 2015. The WHO, other UN agencies and all our governments are in a last-minute sprint to achieve as many of the targets as possible. Promoting physical activity certainly has to be part of any credible drive to improve global health.

What can be done? Not enough countries monitor physical activity in adults and children or have programs to get their citizens out and moving in sports, cycling, running or even just walking. A decade ago, all countries worldwide committed to developing a plan to promote physical activity among their citizens at the World Health Assembly, but progress has been spotty.

Credit is due to people like Michele Obama for efforts like "Let's Move" targeted at children, but all public institutions and the private sector must become engaged, and we need national networks to share successful approaches.

What might work? Well, employers in some countries have already set up their own exercise facilities and given staff time to use them. Others are rewarding employees who are successful in weight loss programs.

Recently, some companies have even begun distributing wristband monitors to staff who want to monitor their physical activity and they sponsor competitions to see who can make the most progress.

We have the knowledge and the tools to succeed. It is time we stopped being just an audience and got in the game.


Princess Haya Al Hussein is a member of the International Olympic Committee and a UN Messenger of Peace.