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Why increasing physical activity is good for the economy and society

The benefits of physical activity: Part four

Published: 24/11/2021

Next in our physical activity series, we investigate how increased levels of physical activity are not just good for your clients, they are good for the economy and wider society too.

As we’ve already established throughout this series, stepping up physical activity can provide a range of benefits for individuals. It can play a role in maintaining and improving your client’s overall physical and mental wellbeing and reduce the likelihood of them needing to claim for preventable, lifestyle-related diseases, such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease and various cancers.

A recent report from Vitality Research Institute1, revealed that moderate changes to physical activity and diet can have a material impact on a person’s lifespan - and our healthspan, the number of years we can expect to live in good health. For example, a 30-year-old man of average health could gain 2.8 years of healthy life through moderate changes to physical activity and diet. A 30-year-old female who makes a moderate increase in physical activity and diet could add three years of good health.

What’s often overlooked, however, is how much physical activity and healthy lifestyle choices can positively impact the economy and wider society - from reducing pressure on healthcare systems to improved productivity in the workplace. In this article, we’ll unpack these two key areas further.


There is no ignoring the cost of physical inactivity on healthcare systems around the world. A 2016 study, based on data from 142 countries, representing 93.2% of the world’s population, estimated that physical inactivity-related deaths contributed $13·7 billion in productivity losses globally2.

Another study found that 11.1% of health care costs overall in the US were associated with physical inactivity3, while Public Health England claims that lack of physical activity ranks equal to smoking - as it causes one in six deaths in the UK and costs up to £7.4 billion annually, including £0.9 billion to the NHS alone.4

Despite 40% of the UK’s total disease burden (premature death and disability) being attributable to poor lifestyle choices1, our current healthcare system prioritises the treatment of illness when it occurs. Only 5% of healthcare spend in the UK goes towards prevention, recent research from Vitality Research Institute revealed. It estimates that the total cost associated with four diseases largely impacted by diet and exercise – heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers – is approximately £15bn annually in the UK. Around £12bn of this is attributable to lifestyle and metabolic risks.

If only 10% of the preventable disease burden is avoided, £1.2bn worth of treatment costs could be saved annually in the UK.


Workplace productivity

The UK is estimated to lose approximately £92bn a year to ill-health related absenteeism and presenteeism1. Around 40% of this productivity loss – equivalent to £39bn a year – is due to employees’ unhealthy lifestyle behaviours and poor mental wellbeing, according to Vitality research5.

What the study showed is that higher levels of physical activity are associated with increased levels of workplace productivity, through reducing overall levels of sickness and taking days off or turning up to work when unwell6. People doing the recommended amount of physical activity saw lower levels of workplace productivity loss7  and it can help boost gross domestic product (GDP) globally8.

Another study9  found that Canada could increase its GDP by $7.5 billion by getting 10% of Canadians to move more and reduce their sedentary behaviour between 2015 and 2040. Adding to this10, research shows that reducing sedentary behaviour and increasing physical activity could boost productivity by reducing the total number of days off work by 90,000 by 2040. And healthcare spending on hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and cancer would be reduced by $2.6 billion. The economic and social benefits of increasing physical activity are clear for all of us to see.

Have you also read?

Part three: What are the mental health benefits of physical activity? 
Part two: The prevalence of physical activity in the UK and why this needs to change 
Part one: Why ‘physical activity’ should not be confused with exercise 

Insights for the article were taken from our report titled ‘Protective benefits of the Vitality Programme: Physical Activity’ – read the full report

Learn more about how the Vitality Programme can benefit the health and wellbeing of your clients.
Find out more about how Vitality’s Serious Illness Cover can offer more relevant, comprehensive cover for your clients:

Where to next?

  • Activity Tracking

    Your clients can get savings on a wide range of activity trackers and see the rewards add up.

  • How rewards work

    We’re the health insurer that gives your clients’ something back when they get active, meaning they can  benefit without having to claim.

  • All Reward Partners

    See all of the great discounts and exciting rewards your clients can access through the Vitality Programme.

1. Maximising quality of life: A primer of healthspan and lifespan, Vitality Research Institute, October 2021
2. The economic burden of physical inactivity: a global analysis of major non-communicable diseases, NCBI. July 2016
3. Inadequate physical activity and health care expenditures in the United States, Jan-Feb 2015
4. Physical activity: applying All Our Health, Public Health England, 16 October 2019
5. Britain’s Healthiest Workplace 2019, Vitality and RAND Europe
6. Estimating the global economic benefits of physically active populations over 30 years (2020–2050), Hafner et al., 2020,
7. Those doing 600–750 MET-minutes of physical activity per week reported, 0.8-1.5 percentage point lower average workplace productivity loss, Estimating the global economic benefits of physically active populations over 30 years (2020-2050), British Journal of Sports Medicine, Dec 2020
8. Doing the recommended amount of physical activity as outlined by the 2020 WHO guidelines may lead to an increase in the global gross domestic product (GDP) of US$314-$446 billion per year and US$6.0–8.6 trillion cumulatively over the 30-year period, British Journal of Sports Medicine, Estimating the global economic benefits of physically active populations over 30 years (2020-2050), Dec 2020
9. Based on the Physical Activity Module of Statistics Canada’s Population Health Model (POHEM-PA), BMC, September 2015
10. Moving Ahead: The Economic Impact of Reducing Physical Inactivity and Sedentary Behaviour, F Bounajm, T Dinh, L Theriault, 2015
11. Individual, Workplace, and Combined Effects Modeling of Employee Productivity Loss, M Stepanek, K Jahanshahi, F Millard, June 2019