Inactivity costs the European economy over €80 billion per year

The WHO estimates that a quarter of European adults, and four-fifths of European adolescents, are insufficiently active. This means that they do not regularly engage in the recommended levels of physical activity. In some respects, these levels of inactivity are an achievement of modern engineering and invention: technology has given rise to a lower proportion of labour-intensive jobs, and progressively removed the requirement for physical labour from many of our daily tasks.

However, the health consequences of sedentary lifestyles are significant, and dangerous. Even individuals of normal weight who do not reach the recommended levels of physical activity are at significantly increased risk of developing cancer, type II diabetes, heart disease and suffering from premature death. Indeed, inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for all global deaths.

Across Europe, inactivity's contribution to all-cause mortality amounts to over 500,000 deaths per year - deaths which could be averted through enabling and encouraging all Europeans to engage in lifestyles that achieve the recommended levels of physical activity. Even if these recommendations are not fully met, important health benefits can still be unlocked with comparatively smaller levels of activity - the initial step from a sedentary life to some degree of activity is crucial. This is especially true for young people: activity in childhood is a significant determinant of future activity levels, and thus influences health outcomes throughout life.

Inactivity imposes economic costs of €80.4 billion per year to the EU-28 through four major non-communicable diseases (coronary heart disease, type II diabetes, colorectal and breast cancer), and through the indirect costs of inactivity-related mood and anxiety disorders. This is equivalent to 6.2% of all European health spending; €5 billion more than the entire world spends on cancer drugs each year; or half the annual GDP of Ireland or Portugal. Looking ahead, this economic cost burden is set to rise - we conservatively estimate that 2030 could see annual costs of over €125 billion (in 2012 prices).

These costs could be avoided if all Europeans were to achieve an average of 20 minutes per day of simple and inexpensive activities such as walking or running. Even interventions to bring just one-fifth of currently inactive Europeans up to the recommended levels of regular activity would yield benefits worth up to €16.1 billion.

Within European nations, lower-income demographics tend to undertake physical activity less regularly than their counterparts from more affluent segments of society. This suggests that the negative health consequences of inactivity are borne disproportionately by more disadvantaged or marginalised groups. This highlights the fact that interventions to promote and encourage more active lifestyles and routines can contribute substantially to addressing health inequalities.

Against this background, it can be clearly seen that physical inactivity is a serious public health challenge, deserving of immediate action. Due to the severe negative consequences of sedentary lifestyles, and the lack of widespread understanding of the risks, it has been said that "sitting is the new smoking". This report draws together a range of existing evidence, research and data sources to examine the economic dimensions of the issue, and underline the urgency with which this problem should be tackled.