Inactivity costs 6.8-billion health care dollars a year in Canada: study

Carolyn Morris
Shine OnJune 7, 2012

You might think the only price of being lazy is your expanding waistline. Well, it turns out that our collective lack of activity is hurting the size of our wallets as well.

A new study published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism,  concludes that 85 per cent of Canadians aren't getting the recommended two and a half hours (150 minutes) of weekly activity. That is only 30 minutes of exercise, 5 days a week.

"Physical inactivity has surpassed epidemic proportions in Canada and accounts for a significant portion of health care spending," writes the study's author, Canada Research Chair in physical activity and obesity at Queen's University, Ian Janssen.

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It turns out that based on 2009 estimates, taxpayers are paying 6.8 billion dollars a year -- 2.4-billion dollars in direct health-care costs and 4.3-billion dollars in lost economic output due to illness, injuries and premature death brought on by our physical inactivity.

Instead of using self-reported data on levels of physical activity, Janssen used results from Statistics Canada's Canadian Health Measures Survey, which used accelerometers on 5,000 participants to record their level of physical activity. He says this data is key, as many people exaggerate when they self-report their level of exercise.

"People over-estimate how intense their activity is and how long they're doing it," he says. "If they're going to the gym, they might include the time that they're there putting on their shoes and their clothes, and showering."

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To establish a price, Janssen used mathematical models to calculate what per cent of a group of seven chronic diseases -- coronary artery disease, stroke, hypertension, colon cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis — can be attributed to insufficient levels of activity. Then, he combined that data with the per cent of health-care and economic costs that those diseases represent.

The annual total of 6.8-billion dollars represents 3.7 per cent of the overall health-care costs. And it's over a billion dollars more than Janssen's previous estimate of 5.3-billion dollars in 2001.

While the move away from self-reporting might explain some of the difference, as well as inflation and increasing health-care costs from an aging population, Janssen believes we are also getting lazier.

"Part of it probably reflects that we have more inactive people in 2009 than in 2001," he says.

"We've seen these negative trends in obesity and some measures of fitness, like grip strength. All else leads us to believe that we have the same thing going on for physical inactivity."

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Of course, he hopes the high dollar figure will help justify the dollars going in to research like his, but he also wants to see people picking up on the importance of exercise. And not just as a means of losing weight.

"Physical activity influences your mental health, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, osteoporosis, all of these things independent of what the person's body weight is," he says.

"So even if the scale isn't changing when you're engaging in activity, it's still very good for your health."

Watch the video below for a short and hard sprint workout.

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