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.