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Nobody will be surprised to hear that exercise is good for you. The benefits of physical activity have been recognised for thousands of years. Already 400 years BCE, Plato proclaimed, "Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it”. And over the past century, science has backed this up. Seventy years ago, a team of scientists published a study of London transport workers. They showed how London bus drivers, who spent most of their working day sitting, had higher rates of coronary heart disease than conductors, who were on their feet collecting fares. Since then, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and hypertension have all been linked to inactivity.
Physical activity does much more than stave off disease. It improves cognitive functioning and sleep quality, prevents falls, relieves stress, and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.
And yet, Europeans don’t move enough. Our report Step up! Tackling the burden of insufficient physical activity in Europe finds that one in three adults does not meet the physical activity guidelines. Almost half never exercise or play sports. People from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are even less likely to exercise; only 24% of people who consider themselves working class exercise at least once a week, compared to 51% of people from more advantaged backgrounds. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, with more than half of all adults saying that they exercise less frequently.
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Small steps, big consequences
Just two and a half hours of brisk walking per week can help reduce the risk of disease and increase life expectancy. If everyone in the EU were to meet the WHO recommended guideline of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, more than 10 000 premature deaths could be avoided every year. It would increase the life expectancy of people who are insufficiently active by 7.5 months, and of the total population by nearly 2 months.
Increasing physical activity also makes us more resilient against COVID-19 and potential future pandemics. Evidence has shown that physical activity can protect against the severe effects of COVID-19 and increases the effectiveness of vaccination. Additionally, exercise can also help to address the considerable mental health impact of the pandemic by reducing depressive symptoms and anxiety, while organised sports provide important social connections after a period of social distancing.
Our analysis shows that the EU can save nearly EUR 8 billion per year in healthcare expenditure, which equates to the total annual healthcare expenditure of Lithuania and Luxembourg combined.
The health benefits alone should be enough for governments to step up their policy response promoting and facilitating physical activity. But there’s more: increasing physical activity saves money by reducing the pressure on already-stretched health systems. Our analysis shows that the EU can save nearly EUR 8 billion per year in healthcare expenditure, which equates to the total annual healthcare expenditure of Lithuania and Luxembourg combined.
Physical activity policies can also positively impact climate change and the environment. Policies that encourage cycling and walking reduce greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and energy use. Investing in city parks provides space for people to be active while removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and mitigates the urban heat island effect while providing habitat for urban biodiversity.
Moving from theory to action
The case for investment is clear. But what can be done? Changing behaviour is never easy. To get people moving we must increase awareness of the importance of physical activity, provide information on the “how”, “what” and “where”, ensure access to facilities, and incorporate movement into everyday life. This demands a multifaceted, whole-of-society approach. It requires action from policymakers, but also academics, city planners, school administrators, and employers.
Governments are moving in the right direction. Belgium provides financial support to schools to encourage more physical involvement after lessons. Swedish primary care doctors prescribe physical activity to their patients. Croatia is developing trails and parks across the country that encourage physical activity.
Physical activity is a win-win-win for individuals, healthcare systems and the environment. A comprehensive policy package for physical activity is an excellent investment: every 1 EUR invested returns 1.7 EUR in economic benefits.
It’s time to move.
 Deaths in people aged between 30 and 70
Learn more with the new OECD & WHO report Step Up! Tackling the Burden of Insufficient Physical Activity in Europe
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