Making the case for physical activity

This document provides an overview of the best available evidence on health and wellbeing outcomes that are directly affected by physical activity. Its primary purpose is to provide a reference point for physical activity practitioners, commissioners and policy makers who are looking for evidenced based facts to demonstrate the importance of including physical activity programmes and policies in their work.

Physical inactivity is known to be the fourth leading cause of global mortality. Many of the leading causes of ill health in today’s society, such as coronary heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes, could be prevented if more inactive people were to become active. In the UK, the incidence of non-communicable disease which can be attributed to physical inactivity includes:

  • 10.5% of coronary heart disease cases
  • 18.7% of colon cancer cases
  • 17.9% of breast cancer cases
  • 13.0% of type 2 diabetes cases
  • 16.9% of premature all-cause mortality

In addition to reducing premature death and the incidence of disease, participating in physical activity also has benefits for mental health, quality of life and wellbeing and maintaining independent living in older age. It can also play a key role in reducing health and social inequalities. As a result of this wide-reaching impact, physical activity has been described as the ‘best buy in public health’.

Physical inactivity also has a significant burden on healthcare costs and the economy. In 2006/2007, £900 million was spent in the UK on ill health related to physical inactivity. The cost owing to physical inactivity for different diseases was:

  • £117 million (stroke)
  • £542 million (heart disease)
  • £65 million (colorectal cancer)
  • £54 million (breast cancer)
  • £158 million (type 2 diabetes)

Furthermore, ill-health of working age individuals (aged 16-64 years) can cost the government between £62 and £72 billion pounds and have a total economic impact of £103 to £129 billion each year (2007 data). In July 2011 the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales launched Start active, stay active, a joint report on physical activity which included guidelines for participation in physical activity across the life course. These guidelines provide recommendations on levels of physical activity which best support population level changes in health. Despite the well reported health and economic benefits of physical activity, levels of participation in the UK are currently very low in both children and adults; for example, fewer than 40% of men and fewer than 30% of women
meeting the recommended guidelines across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Action and investment is urgently needed to increase population levels of physical activity in the UK in order to reap the wide reaching health, social and economic benefits.

British Heart Foundation National Centre (BHFNC) for Physical Activity and Health, Loughborough University

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