Physical inactivity costs the UK health service in excess of £1 billion every year, suggests research in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (The burden of physical activity-related ill health in the UK. J Epidemiol Community Health 2007;61:344-8).
The figure does not take account of indirect costs to the health service, such as informal care, or the impact on the economy due to lost productivity, so the true cost of lack of exercise is likely to be much higher, say the authors.
The researchers calculated the amount of disease and early death attributable to physical inactivity, using information from the World Health Organization.
They concentrated on coronary artery heart disease, stroke, breast and bowel cancers and diabetes, calculating the total number of deaths, illness, and disability associated with them in 2002.
They then used data on the proportion of any disease that can be attributed to recognised risk factors, known as the population attributable fraction, and applied this to NHS cost data.
Altogether, 287,206 people died from diseases associated with a lack of exercise in 2003–4, of which more than 35,000 were directly attributable to physical inactivity.
The calculations showed that physical inactivity was directly responsible for 3% of all deaths and illness in 2002. The direct cost to the NHS, including inpatient stays, outpatient appointments, drugs, community care, and visits to primary care practitioners amounted to £1.06bn. Of this, coronary heart disease accounted for £526m.
"Our results show that there is an economic case for developing policies and interventions that promote physical activity," say the authors. "Accurate costings should be the first step in developing a national public health strategy," they add.