March 4. 2024. 6:20

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Increased physical activity could save €8 billion annually in EU

Increasing physical activity among Europeans could save EU countries €8 billion annually, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’ estimated in their report published on Friday (17 February).

The study “Step up! Tackling the burden of insufficient physical activity in Europe” found that increasing physical activity could also prevent thousands of premature deaths. But with only half of Europeans physically active, according to the latest Eurobarometer study, this would mean mobilising a significant portion of the population.

“Now, we have very good data on what could be achieved if everyone in Europe was efficiently physically active and met the WHO recommendations,” said Hans Kluge, WHO Europe Director, during the launch event on Friday (17 February).

Modelling showed that at least 150 minutes of physical activity of moderate intensity per week, which is the minimum WHO recommendation, could prevent more than 10 000 premature deaths in the EU each year. Furthermore, by 2050 in the EU, 11.5 million new cases of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) will be prevented, WHO said in their press release.

That includes 3.8 million cases of cardiovascular disease, 3.5 million cases of depression, nearly 1 million cases of type 2 diabetes and more than 400,000 cases of different types of cancer.

Moreover, a €1 invested in physical activity generates an almost two-fold return of €1.7 in economic benefits. In their press releases, WHO said that if EU countries collectively tackled physical inactivity across their entire populations, they would save nearly €8 billion per year – more than Lithuania and Luxembourg’s total annual healthcare expenditure combined.

Doubling the time for moderate-intensity physical activity to 300 minutes per week would result in a two to three-fold impact on the population level. That equates to 30,000 premature deaths per year, and 27 million new cases of NCDs prevented over 30 years and reducing healthcare expenditure by €17 billion per year.

The report provides evidence that investing in policies that promote physical activity improves not only individual well-being and population health but also pays economic dividends,” said Kluge.

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Nearly half of Europeans don’t exercise

Despite the wide range of health benefits, one in three European adults does not meet recommended physical activity levels, the latest Eurobarometer survey of over 25,000 Europeans found, which was published in September 2022.

The survey showed that up to 45% never exercise or partake in physical activity. Less than 40% play sports or exercise at least once a week or more, while nearly 20% exercise less than once a week. Compared to previous years’ surveys, it was found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, half of Europeans reduced their activity levels or even stopped altogether.

“Europeans just don’t move enough,” said Ulrik Knudsen, OECD deputy secretary general, during the launch.

The situation across the bloc is not the same: on average, four in ten adults in the EU exercise regularly, but in Finland, more than two-thirds of adults do sport or exercise weekly; in other countries, this is one in five.

According to the respondents, the main barrier to being active is a lack of time followed by a lack of motivation or simply no interest in the sport. In the meantime, the main reason to be active is to improve one’s health, followed by the wish to increase fitness levels and find ways to relax.

Moreover, women and older people are less likely to do regular sports or exercise. Among 15 to 24-year-olds, 73% of men participate at least weekly in sports or exercise, compared to 58% of women.

“We need to better communicate the benefits of being active. Again, not just the physical benefits, but the benefits to mental health,” Kluge said.

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The policy action

In the press release following the publication of the Eurobarometer survey, innovation Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said: “it is vitally important to continue and step up our efforts to promote physical activity, healthy lifestyles and universal values, from gender equality to inclusiveness, through sport”.

The Commission is promoting the benefits of sport for physical and mental well-being during the annual European Week of Sport. Additionally, the HealthyLifestyle4All initiative was launched in September 2021 as a two-year campaign to link sports and active lifestyles with health, food and other policies.

“We have already reached out to millions through our initiatives, but today’s Eurobarometer shows us that we must continue to find new ways to motivate Europeans to get active,” European Way of Life Vice-President, Margaritis Schinas, said.

Comparing the situation to 2017, several countries saw considerable increases in the amount of physical activity practised by adults. For example, in the Czech Republic, the percentage of people practising sports weekly increased by 12% while other physical activity increased by 2%.

In Austria, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovak Republic, Luxembourg and Finland, participation in other forms of physical activity also increased considerably. Portugal, on the other hand, saw participation in both forms of physical activity decrease, while participation in sports and exercise decreased notably in Poland, Hungary, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

“Changing behaviours is never easy. We all know that to get people moving, we need to increase awareness of the importance of physical activity. We need to inform people of the how, the when and the what, and the where,” Knudsen concluded.