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The impact of physical activity on GDP

The fitter the population, the more robust the economy – global study.

A global study by Vitality and UK-based research institute Rand Europe released this week shows that South Africa could see an increase of $500 million in GDP if it can get adults 20% more active* over the next 30 years.

Discovery Vitality CEO Dinesh Govender says the economic improvement comes about from lower mortality rates (because more people are alive and contributing to the economy), reduced absenteeism, and lower presenteeism driven by the impact of physical activity on mental health.

Rand Europe president Hans Pung says the study points to a significant relationship between inactivity and productivity loss, driven largely by ill-health related presenteeism. Presenteeism refers to people showing up for work but finding that their health issues have a marked impact on their productivity.

How much activity?

For adults, the World Health Organisation recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, or 70 minutes of vigorous physical activity, per week.

This includes activities that fit into a person’s normal day-to-day routine, including walking, housework and gardening. A person is deemed to have physical fitness if they can achieve muscle-powered work such as lifting heavy weights or running a marathon.

Fitbit wearers start off with a goal of 10 000 steps a day as this works out to about 8km a day for most people, means about 30 minutes of daily exercise, and satisfies the recommendation for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.

Locally, 28.5% of the male population and 47.3% of the female population are considered insufficiently active – which means they are clocking up less than 150 minutes of moderate activity (30 minutes per weekday) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.

The study states that global GDP would gain more than $100 billion each year until 2050 if people:

  • Walked 15 minutes more per day
  • Did a slow jog of one kilometre per day, or
  • Took 1 500 extra steps a day.

Govender says insurers connected by Vitality – now collectively accountable for more than 35% of the world’s individual protection market – are committed to addressing significant global challenges such as inactivity.

“This is evidenced by Vitality’s global commitment last year to make 100 million people 20% more active by 2025,” he says.

“In South Africa alone in 2015, we pioneered a step-change in how people tracked their physical activity and health with our Vitality Active Rewards with Apple Watch benefit.

Vitality members bought more than 231 000 fitness devices this year alone,” he adds.

Fitness trackers, a great but unaffordable incentive 

Some of the more common barriers to increased physical activity include limited time, a lack of resources, and poor motivation.

The Vitality/Rand Europe study found that technology and mobile devices can be used to engage members, verify their activities and track their progress. However, although pedometers and fitness trackers are effective means of motivation and monitoring, those using them must also be motivated – and able to afford these devices.

A quick visit to pricecheck.co.za reveals that the cheapest Fitbit for kids is priced at R1 899 while the Fitbit Alta HR for adults is priced at R2 999. An Apple Series 3 smart watch will set you back R4 000.

A study by PwC showed that 72% of employees would be happy to use a piece of wearable technology provided by their employer and allow the employer to collect data from it.

If their benefits are offered, the proportion of employees prepared to share information rises to 87%.

The most enticing benefits of wearing devices and sharing information were found to be:

  • Flexible working hours (76%)
  • Fitness incentives (72%)
  • Lower health insurance premiums (70%), and
  • Free health screening/annual health check (59%).

Nanie Rothman, associate director in PwC’s actuarial, risk and quants division, says: “Companies exploring health and wellness programmes involving wearable devices can expect buy-in if incentives and proper policies are in place ensuring the privacy of employees’ information.

“Policies should be set to clearly identify what data will be shared with employers and what this data will be used for,” he adds.

Absenteeism in SA

Workplace absenteeism is rife across South Africa. A 2017  School Monitoring Survey found the national average for teacher absence on an average day was 10%, with wide variations noted within primary and secondary schools, as well as across provinces and quintiles.

In 2015, Occupational Care South Africa found that 15% of staff call in sick daily in SA, but only one in three is actually ill.  The cost to the economy was estimated then at roughly R16 billion a year.

5 ways to get more steps into your day

  1. Park in the furthest bay.
  2. Make more trips; instead of doing ‘lazy loads’, take out two packets of groceries at a time from the car.
  3. Set a reminder on your phone to take a short walk every hour, even if just to the photocopier.
  4. Incorporate physical activity into your daily routine; walk the dog, take a dance class or go to the park.
  5. Use the stairs.

*This sentence has been changed since this article was first published. The original information from Discovery stated: “… an increase of $500 million in GDP if it can get 20% of adults more active over the next 30 years.”

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Maybe we can get Eskom and Government to go for a jog every afternoon. That will be so much fun to watch.

The fitter the population, the more robust the economy – global study. Rubbish. Tell that to the 100’s of thousands on their feet every day in South Africa. Not the few employed but the millions unemployed.

Poverty and situation that most South Africans are in, means this is completely irrelevant. Although there are benefits to leading an active lifestyle, but to state they are significant economic benefits linked directly to increased physical activity is completely bias.

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