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Americans Blow $27.8 Billion a Year by Being Lazy

Around the globe, the U.S. accounts for two-fifths of the $67 billion in losses tied to physical inactivity.

It’s been deemed one of the 10 leading risk factors for death, but it turns out that physical inactivity also comes with a hefty tab—$67.5 billion, to be exact.

The first study quantifying the global costs of sloth was published Thursday in the scientific journal The Lancet, finding what researchers labeled a conservative estimate of the economic burden caused by inactivity.

More than 40 percent of that total, $27.8 billion, is attributed to the U.S., illustrating a gap between high- and low-income countries. Lower- and middle-income countries shared 75 percent of the disease burden but less than 20 percent of the economic burden, said Melody Ding, lead author of the study and a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney’s school of public health.

“The most striking finding is not the actual number, it’s the distribution of the economic burden across regions,” Ding said. “In wealthy countries, people pay with their pockets. In less wealthy countries, they’re paying with their lives.”

The researchers estimated the costs by looking at expenses, productivity losses, and disability-adjusted life-years for five major diseases related to inactivity—coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, and colon cancer. Type 2 diabetes was the most expensive disease, accounting for $37.6 billion of the economic burden, a 70 percent share of all direct health costs. In the U.S., direct costs represented a slightly bigger piece of inactivity-related expenses, 88.8 percent, compared with 79.7 percent globally.

To make sure the costs were attributable to physical inactivity, the researchers used previous estimates of how physical inactivity affects the diseases and the prevalence of inactivity in each country to calculate country-specific costs.

Ding said there are 22 diseases and conditions linked to physical inactivity, but the researchers looked at only the five major ones because of a lack of data in many countries. They studied 142 countries representing 93.2 percent of the world's population.

Since the number of conditions related to inactivity (defined by the World Health Organization as not meeting its recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week for adults) is so much higher, and there are more productivity costs that weren't measured, the real cost is at least two to three times larger than what researchers found, Ding said.

In the U.S., the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition estimates that only one in three adults gets the recommended amount of physical activity each week.

“This is really just the tip of the iceberg,” Ding said.

To her point, a previous estimate of U.S. health-care costs related to inactivity by Emory University researchers concluded that 11 percent of health expenditures were associated with inadequate physical activity. By this measure, it would result in a $330 billion estimate based on America’s $3 trillion in health-care spending. Such programs as “Let’s Move” are in place to encourage Americans to be more active, but Ding said quantifying the economic burden shows the need for further action globally.

“We need more investment to make physical activity accessible to all,” she said.

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