The $300 billion cost of human inactivity

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Almost 500 million people will become seriously ill by 2030 due to physical inactivity.
  • The World Health Organization says this avoidable epidemic will cost US$27 million a year.
  • And it’s not just a developed world problem – three quarters of new cases will be in middle-income countries.
  • It can all be prevented if people just take an hour’s exercise a day, says WHO.

The world faces an epidemic of avoidable diseases like cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and dementia unless swift action is taken to persuade people to become more active, according to new analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Based on a study of activity levels among people in 174 countries, the report says that inactivity is a serious threat to health in all countries across the world with 500 million new cases of preventable diseases likely to occur by 2030 unless governments act.

This new disease burden will cost $300 billion, adding $27 billion a year to already stretched global healthcare costs. Nearly half of the new cases of non-contagious diseases will result from high blood pressure and more than a fifth from depression.

Three quarters of cases caused by inactivity will occur in lower and upper middle-income countries “who have the most to do and least resources”, the report says. In high-income nations, 70% of healthcare budgets will go on treating illnesses caused by physical inactivity.

Levels of inactivity are twice as high in high income countries than in low-income nations, and, across the globe, women are less active than men “particularly in the eastern Mediterranean region and the Americas”, the WHO adds.

Several people doing stretching exercises.

Any activity is better than none, but 60 minutes a day helps ward off disease, says the WHO. Image: Unsplash

Both men and women in all parts of the world become less active as they get older “despite clear evidence that being active benefits older adults in relation to preventing falls, remaining independent, reducing isolation and maintaining social links to improve psychosocial health”.

“There are few areas in public health – such as physical activity – where evidence on required action is so convincing, cost effective and practical,” the report says.

Any activity is better than none at all, the WHO says. One hour’s exercise a day can help prevent coronary heart, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, reduce the risk of cancer and ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Broken promises

Nations agreed five years ago to implement the WHO’s Global Action Plan on Physical Activity (GAPPA), which set a global target to decrease levels of inactivity by 15% by 2030 but action to achieve the target has been “slow and uneven” resulting in little progress.

“A consequence of this ‘inaction’ is that already stretched health systems are burdened with preventable disease today and even more so in the future, and communities fail to benefit from the wider social, environmental and economic benefits associated with more people being more active,” the report adds.

A bar chart showing countries with national, standalone physical activity policy, strategy, action plan, by region and country-income level, 2021.

While 91 countries have a national action plan, only 74 of these are operational. Image: WHO

Only two of the 20 actions set in GAPPA have been implemented by most countries – national monitoring of physical activity and road safety standards – while more than half of those that signed up to the plan have yet to implement any of the remaining 18 measures.

Even where countries have a national plan to increase the physical activity levels of their citizens, not all of them have actually put the plan into action. The report says of the 91 nations with activity plans, only 74 have made them operational.

“Uneven implementation across WHO regions and country-income level results in inequities in people’s access to opportunities and environments that support being regularly and safely active,” the report says.

The World Economic Forum’s 2022 report Investing in Health Equity highlighted the role that companies can play in promoting equal access to healthcare across the world. In a survey, more than half of CEOs said advancing health equity was a very high priority for their organization.

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