Couch Potatoes Costing NHS £1bn Per Year, Say Researchers

Britain’s couch potato tendency is costing the NHS £1bn a year as diseases linked to physical inactivity rise, according to research published today. Our sluggishness causes both disease and death, says the report by experts at Oxford University’s department of public health.

They estimate that in 2003-04 more than 35,000 deaths could have been avoided if Britons had enjoyed a more active lifestyle.

The study takes into account only the direct costs to the NHS of lack of exercise, focusing on the treatment of heart disease, stroke, breast and bowel cancers, and diabetes. There are also high indirect costs associated with days lost to sickness absence and premature death, private healthcare costs and home care.

Steven Allender and colleagues, writing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, say the figure is probably an under-estimate. “Most people over-estimate their physical activity,” Dr Allender said.

Physical activity levels are dropping in Britain, in spite of government strategy and the concern over rising obesity among children and adults. The government has stated it wants 70% of the adult population to have at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise on five or more days a week, which can include walking to work, gardening and housework. But only 37% of men and 25% of women stir themselves sufficiently, and the figures are not rising.

“The true prevalence of physical activity is incredibly low, probably much lower than we think,” said Dr Allender. “It is safe to say that people are becoming less active, which is to do with changes in the way we live our lives. Jobs have become more sedentary. There is more entertainment that is basically sitting inside. But also there are people’s perceptions of the safety of their neighbourhoods which stops them going for a walk.”

He says that changes to the environment need to be tackled, such as the provision of more and better swimming pools and other sports facilities. But there is also evidence that congestion charging in London has led more people to take to their bikes.

The British Heart Foundation, which funded the research and will shortly launch a campaign to promote exercise among the 50-65 age group, who tend to become physically inactive when they retire, is calling on the government to make this a much higher profile issue.

“All adults should aim to take 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on five days a week at least. It can be enjoyable, cheap and easy to fit into everyday life. Brisk walking, swimming and gardening are great examples,” said Steve Shaffelburg, the foundation’s policy manager.

The Liberal Democrats accused the government of doing too little to get the UK population moving. “Under Labour we’ve seen activity decline and obesity soar,” said Don Foster, culture, media and sport spokesman. “The government’s response has been to focus on endless targets, statistics and surveys while facilities such as small playing fields are sold off. This staggering cost shows the shortsightedness of Labour’s raid on grassroots sports lottery money to pay for the 2012 Olympics.”

An earlier review by Dr Allender and colleagues of people’s motivation to exercise found that ballroom dancing offered both an activity they enjoyed and the possibility of socialising on a regular basis which was particularly helpful for those whose husband or wife had died.

The main barriers to exercise among the over-50s were anxiety about their ability to be physically active, together with time and cost concerns. Young girls, however, were often no more keen to get active because they wanted to appear feminine and attractive and feared the “sweaty, muscular image attached to active women”.

Impressing boyfriends and their peers was seen as more important than physical activity.

Heavy Burden

  • Government target to get 70% of adults moving for 30 minutes five times a week by 2010. At present 37% of men and 25% of women manage it.
  • More than half of adults are overweight and one in five is obese.
  • The average person watches up to 26 hours of TV a week.
  • Many people say they don’t have time to get active, yet 31% of women spend more time bathing than exercising, while 41% of men devote more time to computer games than to sport, a YouGov poll found.