This article is part of our special report Physical inactivity: A ticking timebomb in the EU.
SPECIAL REPORT / EU member states spend on average €80.4 billion each year in treatment of diseases caused by lack of exercise, according to a new report unveiled in Brussels on Wednesday (17 June).
The study on The Economic Cost of Physical Inactivity in Europe found that European health spending, while already high today, will rise to even higher levels in the future if Europeans do not exercise more.
Diseases linked to a lack of physical activity include coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and different cancers, which cause an estimated 500,000 deaths each year.
The extra costs, estimated at €80.4 billion each year, could be avoided altogether if all Europeans exercised for 20 minutes per day on average. But even if this recommendation was not fully met, important health benefits would still be assured, and substantial savings could still be made, the report found.
The study was performed by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) for the International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA).
Physical inactivity ‘crisis’
Speaking at the launch of the report in Brussels, Vicky Pryce, its lead author, who served as joint head of the British government’s Economic Service in 2007-2010, said that the point of the report was to highlight the “physical inactivity crisis” and its economic costs.
“One in four European adults and four in five adolescents are not sufficiently active. They are actually way below the activity level that is expected of them,” Pryce said.
“It’s interesting that the young are even worse than the older ones. Of course, the guidelines are also tougher for young people. But if you don’t start early, the chances are that you are going to be even more inactive and then you’ll have more health problems,” she continued.
ISCA President Mogens Kirkeby said that politicians now have a moral, ethical and financial obligation to make changes happen.
“Many sectors have to focus on this challenge to come up with solutions. In this case, collaboration and intervention will create a better and stronger outreach and impact results,” he said.
Moving on in the educational sector
Antonio Silva Mendes, Director of the Commission’s Youth and Sports Policies, said that in 2013, the executive recognised the importance of physical activity and sport.
“We don’t need a clear message or political commitment to say what we have to do. We already have the framework, so now we have to do things with concrete steps,” Mendes stressed.
“One of the solutions, and part of the recommendation, is to address physical activity in schools. This is the starting point, but we have no mandate, so member states themselves will have to follow up. Through our network, the Commission is trying to convey this message to the educational sector.”
Seán Kelly, an Irish MEP who represents the European People’s Party (EPP) and a Founding Executive Chairman of the Irish Institute of Sport, said he believes that now things are actually ‘moving’ and changing both at EU and at national level when it comes to physical activity. He said physical activity affects everybody economically, socially and culturally.
“Physical activity lowers costs for treatments, but it also prevents diseases, improves your mental health, and gives you a better quality of life. It gives us economic, social and cultural benefits. It’s a medicine in itself,” he said.
Kelly agreed with Mendes that the education sector had the biggest potential to make a difference.
“At primary school level, there is not a sufficient activity level. In my country, Ireland, it is estimated that only 19% meet the physical activity recommendations. One in four is unfit or obese and has high blood pressure,” Kelly said.
While politicians and the educational sector play a vital part in encouraging physical activity, the private sector also needs to step up to the plate and take on some responsibility.
James Quincey, President of Coca-Cola Europe, said that corporations and NGOs can make a difference, sometimes with the help of new technology and innovation.
“I really believe that corporations have a role to play. Not only because they have a responsibility to society, but because in the end you can only have a healthy business if there is a healthy local community,” he said.
Quincey mentioned that a large number of his employees are now relying on smartphone apps to measure how active they are, but also to create training programmes that are exciting.
“Technology and innovation absolutely play a role in moving forward because this can make physical activity positive and even fun. If we think we can get people to move more by making them feel guilty and not letting their gym membership lapse at the end of February, I think we are making a mistake. We need to meet people where they are, and make physical activity positive and fun,” Quincey said.
Kevin Mayne, development director at the European Cyclists' Federation, said:
“At ECF we work to ensure that cycling (and walking) are part of everyday travel and leisure, so we welcome every piece of evidence that sends a message to decision-makers about the impact of inactivity. This report helps show that this is a policy problem for the whole of society, we must create environments that encourage and support physical activity where people live and work."
“Every move counts," Jean-Michel Borys, president for EPODE, a non-governmental organisation that works to prevent childhood obesity. "This report emphasises the need for concrete action to get people to move in their daily life. At EPODE International Network, we change children, adolescents and families' behaviour towards a more active lifestyle for the long term. We work with local politicians to change the physical and social environment of the communities. We must act together in order to change the norm: physical activity is easy, fun and within reach,” he continued.
“Sedentary lifestyle has an impact on health and can prompt negative changes in European societies. Promoting physical activity, sports and exercise throughout Europe requires new efforts. The necessity of implementing exerciseoriented concepts in medicine and society as a whole is essential. Traditional concepts of technology and medicationdriven medical practice have limited effects on life expectancy and health, and can result in an improper allocation of financial resources. It can also prevent patients who really need surgery and other invasive medical techniques from obtaining adequate treatment. The solution should not be to allocate more money to invasive or surgical procedures, but to new ways of informing people about prevention and exercise, changing their environments to enable physical activity, and nurturing the cooperation between medical doctors and the sports system,” added Jürgen Michael Steinacker, Prof. Dr. med. Dr. h.c., European Initiative for Exercise in Medicine.
Tom Sermon, CEO of Global Corporate Challenge, commented:
“The numbers are frightening, but the worst thing about them is that they are totally avoidable. We just need to be a bit more active. But to make this happen we need to work together to encourage everyone, especially today’s kids, to be more active. There is no simple single solution. If we all take some responsibility we can make this happen. We can, and need to, improve the lives of our children by getting them into physically active habits early.”
The World Health Organisation recommends participation in 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. This would reduce the risk of ischaemic heart disease by approximately 30%, the risk of diabetes by 27%, and the risk of breast and colon cancer by 21–25%.
According to a Eurobarometer survey, 42% of EU citizens never exercise or play sport.
Currently, 30-70% of EU citizens are overweight while 10-30% are obese, the WHO estimates.
- 7-13 Sept.: EU week of sport
- Sept.: MOVE Week
- Council: Council conclusions on the contribution of sport to the EU economy, and in particular to addressing youth unemployment and social inclusion
- Commission: Sport