An understanding of the most prevalent diseases and associated risk factors is crucial to conceptualise the role of sport in health prevention and promotion. In developing countries, sport is widely used as a tool to educate individuals and communities on the risk factors associated with HIV/AIDS. Whilst HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases continue to affect millions of people around the world, there is a significant increase in the global burden of non-communicable diseases related to lifestyle changes in physical inactivity, unhealthy diets and tobacco use.

Cardiovascular diseases

Cardiovascular diseases include coronary heart disease and stroke and are the leading causes of death globally. Causes of cardiovascular disease are unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and tobacco use. Physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by improving glucose metabolism, reducing body fat and lowering blood pressure.


Diabetes is a disease which occurs when the body does not produce or properly use insulin and this may result in Type I or Type II diabetes. Diabetes may be prevented, or at least delayed, by weight loss, a healthy lifestyle, in particular, regular physical activity. Diet, drug therapy and physical activity are also major components of the treatment of diabetes.


Obesity is an abnormal accumulation of fat that may impair health and unlike other diseases, social and environmental factors play a significant role in defining obesity. The incidence of obesity is a growing concern internationally with an estimated 400 million obese people in 2005.  The global rise in the incidence of obesity is related to a shift in diet and decreased physical activity levels.


Cancer is not a single disease with a single type of treatment and in fact, there are over 200 types of cancer involving abnormal growth of cells in different parts of the body. It has been estimated that 40% of all cancers may be prevented by a healthy diet, physical activity and no tobacco use.

Mental health

One in four patients visiting a health service has at least one mental, neurological or behavioural disorder (such as depression, anxiety or mood disorders) that may not be diagnosed or treated. There is evidence to suggest that physical activity can reduce the symptoms of depression and can also be help to ameliorate mental well-being through improved mood and self-perception.

Physical Activity, Chronic Disease and Communicable Diseases

Global trends in physical inactivity claim that more than 60% of adults do not participate in sufficient levels of physical activity and physical inactivity is more prevalent among women, older adults, people from low socio-economic groups and people with disabilities.

In 2005 it was estimated that 80% of cardiovascular disease deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries. The prevalence of those suffering from overweight and obesity is increasing in developing countries and even in low-income groups in richer countries. The rise of chronic disease, coupled with the existing burden of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, produces a ‘double burden of disease’ on low- and middle-income countries.

There are a range of methodologies utilised around the world to deliver health promotion and prevention strategies and an interesting example is the emergence of internet-based health information for developing countries. Sport and physical activity, however, remains an attractive low-cost strategy to promote healthy behaviours and lifestyles throughout the lifespan and reduce the burden of chronic diseases on public health systems.

Image by B Mat an gelo