Exercise 2
Image Credit: Pixabay

A lack of physical activity is exacting a high price on the global economy, driving rising and costly rates of illness, according to the World Health Organization.

The UN agency puts the annual cost of physical inactivity at $27.4 billion, marked by 500 million new cases of preventable, noncommunicable diseases and mental illness projected through 2030. The direct costs will predominantly come from depression, dementia and hypertension, which collectively make up about 70% of the total.

"We need more countries to scale up implementation of policies to support people to be more active through walking, cycling, sport, and other physical activity," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. "The benefits are huge, not only for the physical and mental health of individuals, but also for societies, environments and economies."

Concerns about rising obesity, poor nutrition and lack of exercise are growing as 81% of adolescents and 27% of adults fail to meet recommended physical-activity levels and health-care spending skyrockets. The report looks at the economic and health consequences of current activity levels.

The researchers defined inactivity as less than 2 1/2 hours of moderate exercise a week or fewer than 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. They studied health and economic data from 194 countries, along with rates of stroke, cancer and other preventable diseases.

The WHO report hasn't been peer reviewed, and the authors acknowledge their work was limited by uncertain data in lower- and middle-income countries where estimating costs was more difficult. In addition, Fiona Bull, head of WHO Physical Activity Unit, said that agency is missing some globally approved indicators.

"It can be a vicious circle, no indicator and no data leads to no tracking and no accountability, and then too often, to no policy and no investment," Bull said.

The study doesn't say increased physical activity can totally erase the projected multiyear price tag of $302 billion. The cost of programs and government actions to get people off their sofas also has to be taken into account.

Collaboration across government agencies is necessary to build public awareness and change people's habits, and could include infrastructure improvements and recreation facilities. Bull said the WHO is tracking how countries are doing with physical activity goals via the Global Status Report on Physical Activity, and the results haven't been promising.

"The headline is that it's slow and it's uneven," Bull said. "And this slowness is the fact that we've got very no or modest implementation of the policy across those countries."