Physical inactivity costs taxpayers $6.8B a year

The more Canadians settle into a life of physical inactivity, the more they exact a toll on the country's health care system, a new study suggests.

Benefits of activity will do more than costs of inactivity to motivate Canadians to move, active living advocate says

The more Canadians settle into a life of physical inactivity, the more they exact a toll on the country's health care system, a new study from Queen's University suggested.

The report, published online in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, estimated the total cost of a life of lassitude had reached approximately $6.8 billion in 2009, or 3.7 per cent of all health care costs.

A customer in Montreal sits down to take advantage of internet access at a coffee shop, one of the drivers of physical inactivity. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Study author Ian Janssen mined a variety of data sources to arrive at the figures, which account for both the direct and indirect cost of physical inactivity.

Janssen said his estimates of physical activity levels throughout the country were based on Statistics Canada's Health Measure Survey, which tracked the movements of some 5,000 participants using an accelerometer.

This data was combined with scientific literature on the risks physically inactive people run of contracting seven common chronic diseases, as well as figures from Health Canada estimating the cost of treating those conditions.

Running those results through a series of mathematical models, Janssen said the direct cost of treating conditions associated with a sedentary lifestyle amounted to more than $2.4 billion. The indirect costs — which he described as the loss of personal and financial productivity due to poor health — added up to slightly above $4.3 billion, he said.

"It's important for people to understand that this is a very costly behaviour," Janssen said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Kingston, Ont.

"We often think of medical care as the diseases themselves. We don't realize that those diseases are caused, in large measure, by our lifestyle behaviours and choices."

How little we move

The report suggests the costs associated with sedentary lifestyles have been steadily increasing since 2001, a year in which Janssen pegged the overall cost at $5.3 billion or 2.6 per cent of total costs.

The most recent numbers can be explained in part by population growth and the country's aging demographics, Janssen said.

A stronger factor, however, is the increasingly reliable data illustrating exactly how little exercise Canadians are getting.

StatsCan's Health Measures Survey previously relied on self-reported data to gauge Canadians' exercise routines. Since the most recent survey relied on numbers gathered through electronic monitoring devices, however, Janssen said the country's dismal activity levels were clearly spelled out for the first time.


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Between 2007 and 2009, only 15 per cent of adults were getting the recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise. The country's youth were still more sedentary, with only nine per cent achieving the minimum amount of activity.

The report cautions that by only focusing on seven chronic diseases and workforce productivity, many cost drivers have not been factored into this most recent analysis. Still, the report said, the findings speak for themselves.

"Physical inactivity has surpassed epidemic proportions in Canada and accounts for a significant portion of health care spending," the report said.

Motivating people to change their ways

Canada is not alone in shouldering a hefty price tag for a sedentary population. Janssen found seven per cent of Australia's economic health burden comes from inactivity, while direct costs account for between 1.5 and 2.5 per cent of health care spending in Switzerland, the U.K. and the United States.

Janssen said the widespread nature of the problem speaks to the complexities health care providers face when trying to address it.

"It's a very difficult thing to fix," Janssen said. "We're talking about something a lot of people don't necessarily like to do, they don't necessarily know how to do it.… It's simple in theory, but in reality it's very difficult to get people to engage in physical activity to improve their health."

Angela Torry, education co-ordinator with the Alberta Centre for Active Living, agreed, adding most Canadians fail to appreciate the link between their inactive lifestyles and the chronic diseases they develop over time.

Janssen's research, she said, may shed light on that relationship for those who respond to economic facts.

For the rest of the country, however, Torry speculated the data would serve as only a minor incentive to get moving.

The more immediate physical, psychological and social benefits of an active life will do more to motivate Canadians to change their ways, she said.

"Yes the economic impact is important, but it's not necessarily the driving force behind what we do," she said. "We believe physical activity is important even beyond the numbers."