How Much Is Physical Inactivity Costing the World?

By: Alia Hoyt
The worldwide annual cost of physical inactivity is $67.5 billion. CSA-Images/Getty
The worldwide annual cost of physical inactivity is $67.5 billion. CSA-Images/Getty

Physical inactivity can cost a person more than a bunch of medical bills or the ability to fit into skinny jeans. One recent study conducted at the University of Sydney, Australia, explored the ripple effect of physical inactivity on the entire world's economy. They looked at both direct health care costs (like bills from doctors) and indirect costs, such as lost productivity.

The researchers didn't go around surveying people about how much cardio they do, however. Instead, they examined a litany of factors to calculate the economic burden of diseases commonly related to physical inactivity (in this case, coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, breast cancer and colon cancer). They calculated disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs), or years that might have been otherwise productive had they not been cut short by death or disability, as well as other productivity losses and direct health care costs for 142 countries.


Physical inactivity-related losses turned out to be massive — the researchers conservatively estimated INT$53.8 billion in worldwide health care system costs in 2013. (An international dollar is a currency unit economists use to compare the values of different currencies in different countries.)

Physical-inactivity related deaths cost a further $13.7 billion in productivity losses, and physical inactivity was responsible for a DALY tally of 13.4 million — that's a lot of productive years gone for good. Taking the two figures together, the worldwide annual cost of physical inactivity is $67.5 billion.

The study was unique in that it looked at direct and indirect costs for low- and middle-income countries, as well as their high-falutin' counterparts. This is important because low- and middle-income countries are physically inactive to a serious degree. They're also home to the majority of noncommunicable diseases, often made worse by physical inactivity. Type 2 diabetes was the most expensive noncommunicable disease of the five looked at in the study, costing $37.6 billion annually.

The economic impact of physical inactivity manifests differently in high- versus low-income areas, however. "High-income countries bear a larger proportion of economic burden (80.8 percent of health-care costs and 60.4 percent of indirect costs), whereas low-income and middle-income countries have a larger proportion of the disease burden (75 percent of DALYs)," the researchers note in the study. The U.S. alone was responsible for 40 percent of the $67.5 billion figure.

"Generally, poorer countries have more unmet health need, due to less developed health and economic systems. Ultimately, poor households pay the most in terms of premature morbidity and mortality, showing inequalities. Although the current economic costs are borne mainly in high-income countries, the expectation is that as low-income and middle-income countries develop economically, their economic burden due to physical inactivity will also escalate," the researchers wrote.

This issue is not going to go away anytime soon, as the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in four adults worldwide and a staggering 80 percent of adolescents are not active enough.