Ground-breaking study shows fitter bodies would lead to fitter economies

November 11, 2019

The results of a ground-breaking academic study on the relationship between global economic growth and exercise, carried out by Vitality and RAND Europe, reveal significant benefits to the economy and life expectancy if physical activity levels increase globally.

The study finds that the world’s GDP would gain more than $100bn (£80bn) each year until 2050 if people:

  • walked 15 minutes more a day, or
  • did a slow jog of half a mile (one kilometre) a day, or;
  • took 1 500 extra steps a day.

The economic improvement arises from lower mortality rates (more people alive and contributing to the economy), reduced absenteeism, and lower presenteeism[1] driven largely by the impact of physical activity on mental health.

Adrian Gore, Discovery Group Chief Executive, says; “Vitality has been successfully incentivising people to lead fitter and healthier lives and ultimately transforming the way insurance works for over 20 years. The insurers connected by Vitality, now collectively accountable for more than 35% of the world’s individual protection market, are committed to encouraging positive behaviour change to not only drive individual improvements, but offer sustainable solutions to global challenges. This study shows the massive benefits of that approach.”

Vitality’s platform of the world’s leading insurers is uniquely well-positioned to address significant global challenges like inactivity, as evidenced by the network’s commitment last year to make 100m people 20% more active by 2025.

Gore continues: “This ground-breaking study provides proof of the relationship between exercise, productivity, mortality and economic growth. It strengthens our resolve to continue to encourage people to Move More and become part of a global health movement.”

The study, authored by Vitality and Rand Europe, aims to enhance the understanding of how inactivity affects all parts of the economy, beyond simply the traditional considerations of healthcare and mortality. It analysed three scenarios[2] that sketch a global picture of how increased physical activity can benefit not only individuals, but also businesses and global economies.

RAND Europe used a dynamic, multi-country macro-economic model to comprehensively assess the impact of physical inactivity on national economies on a consistent basis, allowing for an aggregation of the effect to the global economy. The study uses a novel approach to synthesise the existing evidence on physical activity and mortality risk by taking study design and publication bias into account. It utilises Vitality’s extensive proprietary dataset on workplace health, derived from its Healthiest Workplace initiative in seven countries, to assess the relationship between physical activity and performance at work. And it combines the mortality and productivity effects into a single model to project the true economic cost of physical inactivity over time.

Hans Pung, President of RAND Europe, comments on the significance of the study; “This is the first time that a multi-country macroeconomic model has been applied to the area of physical activity, facilitating a detailed assessment of the current and future implications of insufficient physical activity.”

Pung also highlights the significance of the study for policymakers and employers alike, “The study points to a significant relationship between inactivity and productivity loss, driven largely by ill-health related presenteeism. We hope that these insights will support policy makers and employers with new perspectives on how to enhance the productivity of their populations.”

The study also found that by meeting at least the minimum World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, up to five productive working days can be added every year. This is associated with physical and mental health gains, improved lifestyle behaviours (such as improved sleep quality) and even better engagement at work.

In addition to productivity, individuals also benefit from improved mortality rates – ranging from 17% to 34% for the physically inactive moving to a state of becoming highly active. Vitality estimates this to result in 2.5 years of additional life (based on an average 40-year-old).

For the UK, the combined impact of improved productivity and reduced mortality from getting people to meet at least the WHO recommended levels of activity would contribute to GDP gains of at least $11bn (£8.5bn) annually, or $170 (£130) per person This excludes the cost savings to the NHS associated with improvements in physical activity, resulting from a reduced incidence of diseases linked to inactivity, such as cardiovascular disease, certain forms of cancer, diabetes and mental health issues.

Further spokesperson comments:

Neville Koopowitz, CEO of Vitality UK said: “This is further compelling evidence of the far-reaching benefits of healthy, active lifestyles. Every day at Vitality we see the transformative impact of exercise on people’s lives. Now, for the first time, we have a clear view of the positive effect that regular exercise can have on both society and the economy.”

[1] Presenteeism is the phenomenon of employees being present at work with an impaired capacity.

[1] Scenario 1: Getting physically inactive adults to reach the WHO minimum recommend level for physical activity;

Scenario 2: Getting adults to become 20% more active;

Scenario 3: Getting adults to become 20% more active, while ensuring everyone meets at least the World Health Organization minimum requirements.