Tuesday, June 25, 2024

New WHO/OECD report: increasing physical activity could save the EU billions annually

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In the European Union (EU), 45% of people say they never exercise or play sport, and every third person has insufficient levels of physical activity, according to the latest specific Eurobarometer survey. This leads to millions of cases of noncommunicable
diseases (NCDs) that ruin people’s health and burden economies. A new report from WHO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – “Step up! Tackling the burden of insufficient physical activity in
Europe”* – explains how increasing physical activity to the recommended levels could prevent thousands of premature deaths in the EU and save billions in health-care spending. 

Saving 10 000 lives per year

“Regular physical activity is one of the most important things people can do for a healthy life. Not only does it significantly reduce the risk of numerous noncommunicable diseases, but it also improves mental health and increases well-being,”
says Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, ad interim Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.

“WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week and every move counts towards better health. Our latest report shows that if everyone in the EU were to meet WHO recommended levels of physical activity, it
could prevent more than 10 000 premature deaths each year.”

The new report produced in collaboration with the OECD and with funding from the EU, shows the potential impact that increasing physical activity levels would have on the health of the population and the economy in the EU.

Making the EU more active: major benefits

According to the publication, increasing physical activity to the minimum recommended levels in the EU would prevent 11.5 million new cases of NCDs by 2050, including 3.8 million cases of cardiovascular diseases, 3.5 million cases of depression, nearly
1 million cases of type 2 diabetes and more than 400 000 cases of different cancers. Meeting the target of 300 minutes of physical activity per week would prevent a further 16 million cases of NCDs.

In addition, the report presents calculated potential economic benefits of increased physical activity in purchasing power parities (PPPs) – the rates of currency conversion that try to equalize the purchasing power of different currencies,
by eliminating the differences in price levels between countries.

Today, Germany, Italy and France have the highest burden of insufficient physical activity on health care expenditure in the EU. The WHO/OECD report estimates that these 3 countries will spend on average €2 billion PPP, €1.3 billion PPP
and €1 billion PPP respectively on treating diseases linked to insufficient physical activity each year between 2022–2050.

“Our modelling study clearly shows that increasing physical activity levels is not only great for health – it will create a positive effect for the economy of any country, returning €1.7 in economic benefits for every €1 invested,”
said Michele Cecchini who leads the OECD programme of work on public health.

Overall, if the EU countries tackle physical inactivity in the whole population, they will save 0.6% of their health-care budget on average. This is nearly €8 billion PPP per year – more than the total annual health-care expenditure of
Lithuania and Luxembourg combined.

Physical activity decreased during COVID-19

The WHO/OECD report highlights the need for a more active future as countries are reopening after COVID-19 restrictions.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which saw many countries introducing nation-wide restrictions on movement, had a negative impact on physical activity levels in the EU. More than half of the respondents of the latest Eurobarometer survey claimed that they had
reduced their level of physical activity – with 34% being active less frequently and 18% stopping completely.

In this context, the WHO/OECD report proposes policy measures that can increase levels of physical activity and make people more aware of its health benefits. 

Turning the tide: what policies will work?

“Many countries have already taken promising steps in this direction. But there are still many opportunities to learn from each other’s successes. For instance, schemes to promote active travel to school or work are only present in 14
and 17 out of 27 EU Member States, respectively,” added Dr Wickramasinghe.

A wide range of policy options exist to increase physical activity levels, which improve population health, as well as reducing health-care expenditure:

  • setting-specific programmes in schools, workplaces and the health-care system
  • policies to increase access to sports facilities
  • urban design, environment and transport policies
  • communication and information policies.

As physical activity is a complex behaviour, a comprehensive package of policies is needed to target all its drivers at the same time, with sufficient and sustained funding and solid evaluation. The measures are fully in line with the WHO European
Programme of Work 2020–2025, which promotes united action for better health in all 53 Member States of the WHO European Region.

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* This document was produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union. 

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