The 71st World Health Assembly: Physical activity and non-communicable diseases

12 June 2018 | Policy

Louise MeinckeLouise Meincke is World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) International’s Head of Policy & Public Affairs. She represented WCRF International at this year’s World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting in Geneva (21–26 May).

The walk into the United Nations (UN) Geneva Headquarters for the WHA is always filled with anticipation of what lies ahead in this annual, week-long event. Much planning and preparation has been done, meetings have been set up, schedules set, statements written and submitted, and yet you never really know what might be around the corner. Also there are a lot of corners in the UN building, and finding your way around can sometimes be a little tricky, if not fun, exhausting and frustrating all at the same time.

A particularly welcome move by the new Director-General for the World Health Organization (WHO), was arranging the first ever ‘Walk the Talk’ event in Geneva the day before the official proceedings started. Hundreds of health advocates and the general public took part in walking or running events. It went further – during official proceedings, yoga breaks were encouraged, which as a qualified yoga teacher I was (perhaps a little too) excited to witness. Yet for WHA delegates, with all the politics going on, ensuring that your own health and well-being doesn’t suffer during the week is always a challenge. The lack of physical exercise, coupled with little sleep, skipped meals and food on the go, all combine to make the largest annual gathering of health advocates and policymakers a hotbed for behaviours that are inconsistent to the policies we are advocating.

Louise Meincke speaking at the 71st World Health Assembly

Living the message

As health advocates we must walk the talk. WCRF International’s latest cancer prevention report – Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective – and accompanying policy brief, Driving action to prevent cancer and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) launched during the WHA on 24 May provide a blueprint for cancer prevention; highlighting the latest research on the links between diet, nutrition, physical activity and cancer, and why public policy is critically important to preventing cancer and other diet-related NCDs. Our findings show that being physically active can protect you directly from three cancers (colon, breast and endometrial), and also help you maintain a healthy weight, which reduces your risk of another nine cancers.

As such, we welcomed the adoption of the new WHO Global Action Plan on Physical Activity (GAPPA), which provides governments with updated guidance, and a framework of effective and feasible policy actions to increase physical activity at all levels. We strongly believe in the report’s focus on achieving a paradigm shift in both supporting and valuing people of all ages being regularly active through their lives.

Looking to the future

In the coming months, the Policy and Public Affairs team at WCRF will be building on the recommendations in the GAPPA, as well as our unique NOURISHING framework and policy database, by expanding our current policy focus on healthy diets to include physical activity, made possible through a grant from the EU Commission.

Many exciting things are happening in the sphere of physical activity and public health policy. Lots to do. Better get a move on.

Louise Meincke | 12 June 2018