What is the true cost of physical inactivity? And, how will a physically active population save governments and employers billions of dollars annually? Most importantly, can this motivate us to change?
These are interesting questions to grapple with as we forge ahead after two years of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, where we have seen our physical inactivity levels rise dramatically, chronic illnesses go untreated and mental health plummet. We have spent more time sitting in front of our screens, and our fitness facilities across Canada were in states of rolling closures. Now that we are open again and moving towards a new future, how do we help the millions of Canadians who are inactive? How can we reduce the cost burden of inactivity?
There have been a number of interesting studies done by researchers to measure the cost of physical inactivity globally and in Canada. Given what we know – that being physically active improves both our physical and mental health – it is essential to look at the potential cost savings in both of these areas and how investing in physical activity can, and will, save us billions of dollars. More than cost savings: exercise saves lives.
Cost of Physical Inactivity Worldwide
In 2016, the medical journal The Lancet published a research paper that measured the cost of physical activity worldwide, looking at figures from 142 countries and rates of chronic illness. In avant-garde fashion they called it a “pandemic” of inactivity that was costing governments billions of dollars.
They wrote: “Conservatively estimated, physical inactivity cost health-care systems $53.8 billion worldwide in 2013, of which $31.2 billion was paid by the public sector, $12.8 by the private sector and $9.7 billion by households.”
In 2021, the World Health Organization designed a Global Action Plan designed to increase activity levels for a healthier world. In it, they point to the fact that regular physical activity is “proven to prevent and treat noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and breast and colon cancer, and helps prevent hypertension, obesity and improve mental health. Physical activity also improves quality of life and well-being.”
Notably, the WHO says an additional by-product of a healthy and active population is a reduced use of fossil fuels, cleaner air, and less congested roads – alluding to their recommendation for more walkable cities and bike lanes. The WHO global action plan calls for global leadership and a “whole-of society” response to achieve a “paradigm shift in both supporting and valuing all people being regularly active.”
All research surrounding physical activity during COVID-19 was grim: globally, our physical activity levels went down. The recommendation that public health strategies incorporate physical activity was the repeated call to action.
Cost of Physical Inactivity in Canada
In 2012, researchers at Queen’s University assessed the cost of physical inactivity in Canada to determine a figure by looking at both the direct costs of preventable noncommunicable diseases, as well as indirect costs such as early mortality and long-term disability and loss or reduction in employment. The figure presented to the House of Commons by various health agencies was stark: the direct, indirect and total health care costs of physical inactivity amounted to $6.8 billion dollars, or 3.7 per cent of overall health care costs.
How do they measure those costs? Along with the direct cost of treating chronic illness, they come from loss of personal and financial productivity. For example, a 2004 report on the effect of inactivity on heart disease and obesity costs found that 19 per cent of coronary heart disease in men could be directly attributed to physical inactivity.
With more than 80 per cent of the population not getting 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise, there is a huge opportunity for us to not only save our federal and provincial health budgets billions of dollars – but also save lives. Canadians are sitting too much and not moving enough.
The opportunity for the fitness industry to make an impact is immense.
Cost Savings of a Physically Active Population
It would be nice if we could wave a magic wand and cast a spell on Canadians to encourage them to get physically active, but habit change is not simply about magic spells or external motivators. However, numbers do talk.
In 2018, Participaction presented data to the House of Commons, stating “Even a modest increase in movement over the next 25 years would result in reduced incidences of debilitating chronic disease. Getting just 10 per cent of Canadian adults to sit less and move more would reduce Canada’s health-care costs by $2.6 billion and inject $7.5 billion into the Canadian economy by 2040. Every dollar spent to promote healthy eating and physical activity saves $6 in the cost of caring for people with chronic diseases.”
More recently, a 2021 study published in the British Medical Journal found that exercising in our younger years can save us a huge amount of money in retirement. The study looked at data from over 520,000 Americans from various studies and compared their exercise habits against health claims over a series over decades. The data showed that those who began exercising in their 20s saved the most money on healthcare costs every year after retirement – up to $1874 per year.
Additional Cost-Savings: Mental Health
We can connect the dots further when we look at the cost of mental health in Canada and the ability of physical activity to both prevent and treat many mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and stress. According to the Canadian Medical Health Association, “the economic cost of mental illnesses to the Canadian healthcare and social support system was projected as $79.9 billion dollars for the year 2021.”
There has been inconclusive data to tie improving physical activity levels with reduced costs associated with mental illness – however, considerable data has shown that improving physical activity has a huge beneficial effect on reducing mental health conditions. In 2021 the Move Your Mental Health report provided an extensive review of over 1,000 studies over the last 30 years – 89 per cent of those studies found a statistically significant and positive association between physical activity and mental health. A 2018 study published in the medical journal The Lancetfound that people who exercise have 1.5 fewer poor mental health days per month than those who do not.
What takeaways can we glean from this?
People who exercise are stronger both physically and mentally. Beyond any doubt, an investment in improving physical activity levels will pay huge dividends. It is far better to prevent chronic illness and mental health than to treat it and we need to put policies in place that focus on prevention, not treatment. The time to act is now.