Escalators, cars, drive-thrus, desk jobs. In designing the modern world, it seems we unconsciously took out the act of movement to the extent that it’s now “normal” not to move. As a result, physical inactivity costs billions each year and is destroying our quality of life – it is now more deadly than smoking.

If there’s any good news, it’s that lack of exercise is starting to make it to the global agenda as a serious public health, economic growth and competitiveness issue. Whenever talking about the physical inactivity crisis, reactions tend to fall into two main buckets:

1. This is way bigger than we thought

The problem plays out differently in different countries, but it’s fair to say things are looking universally bad. For example, in the US, two out of every three kids are considered inactive. Physical inactivity costs the economy US$ 147 billion/year – twice the entire federal education budget. If things continue as they are, by 2020 the average American adult will expend only about 25% more energy than someone who sleeps 24 hours a day.

In China, physical activity levels have dropped 45% in just 18 years. Considering that the average Chinese kid gets only 20 minutes of physical activity in school, and 92% get none outside of it, things aren’t looking to get better any time soon.

So yes, the problem may well be bigger than you thought.

2. Simply asking people to get off the couch will not solve the issue

The modern world is designed for physical inactivity to thrive, so it’s unrealistic to think that a great “motivating” marketing campaign on its own will solve the problem. We need to redesign our environments and mindsets to be active once again. This will require building cities and communities with physically active lifestyles in mind, designing a child’s school experience to be active, and committing to “down time” as “active time”.

It’s not rocket science, but it needs to be conscious and deliberate, not just by individuals but by the corporations, governments, legal systems and other mechanisms that play a part in shaping modern life. And despite the need for multidisciplinary action to change things, there are two common things we can all do (the “asks”):

1. Create early positive experiences for kids in active play, sports, physical education and physical activity. Active kids will be healthier, happier, smarter and more productive as they get older. They’ll also be more likely to be active adults.

2. Integrate physical activity to build incidental movement back into life across work, home life and leisure.

It truly doesn’t matter if you run a country, a company or a household, this is on you. And seriously, everyone can do something.

Last month 10 corporations, civil society organizations and government agencies launched an advocacy and programming partnership to get kids active in American schools. The partnership, which includes Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move team, is a defining one, particularly as it relates to delivering on Ask 1. Never before has such a diverse group of entities worked to get kids active at this scale and with a specific goal of having fun.

So that covers the big guys, but what about the rest of us? Again, it’s not that complicated. Take me for example. At Nike, my role is to leverage Nike and all of its brand power and assets to break cycles of physical inactivity. At home, I’m just “mum”. And there will be no physical inactivity crisis in our home.

Among many other things parents do, I keep a careful watch on how much my 18-month-old moves during the day. Habits form young and his brain function and future will be profoundly impacted by how much he moves now. So our time together as a family is spent as active time as much as possible. And you can be sure when my little guy goes to school they won’t be cutting recess or physical education without one hell of a fight.

This is not about why we should all move. That question has been answered repeatedly. The real question now, is how will you deliver the two “asks” at work, at home or throughout the organization you lead?

In a series of blog posts curated by the World Economic Forum’s Health Team, a number of leading voices present their perspectives on health and healthcare in the run-up to World Health Day on 7 April. 

For more information, click here.

Watch the Open Forum Davos 2013 War Against Obesity: Fat invoice? debate

Author:  Lisa MacCallum Carter is Vice-President, Access to Sport, at Nike and a 2012 Young Global Leader.

Image: A woman lies asleep on a couch trying to break the world record for continuous television viewing REUTERS/Fred Prouser