20 minutes of moderate exercise each day could boost US economy by up to $200 billion by 2050, analysis suggests

Raising the physical activity levels of adults worldwide by a nominal amount — as little as 20 additional minutes of moderate daily exercise would suffice — could raise the global economy by as much as $446 billion USD by 2050, according to a new analysis from RAND Europe.

The benefits of physical activity have been proven time and again, from lowering risk of diseases like breast and colon cancer to positively impacting mental health, but an increasing number of people across the globe are living more sedentary lifestyles, and researchers wondered what kind of effect this could have on the global economy.

For optimal health benefits, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week. Ideally, this exercise should be spread out over the course of the week, and that breaks down evenly to about 21 minutes of walking or about 11 minutes of running per day.But many people don’t hit these baseline recommendations.

“In high-income Western countries, almost 40 percent of the population is inactive, compared with about 16 percent of people in low-income countries. It is estimated that every year, physical inactivity is associated with up to 5 million deaths worldwide, and contributes to healthcare expenditures, as well as lost productivity,” the RAND analysis determined.

The Vitality Group commissioned RAND Europe to analyze the potential global economic effects of a general increase in the public’s amount of physical activity under three different scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: Every adult completes at least the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.
  • Scenario 2: Every adult increases their physical activity level by 20 percent — this means that those who currently do not exercise would not be improving their physical activity.
  • Scenario 3: Every adult who currently meets the recommended physical activity levels boosts their physical activity by an additional 20 percent, and every adult who is currently below recommendations reaches the threshold.

Hikers in a park, Salurn, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.

The RAND analysts used a combination of literature review, statistical modeling and a multi-country macroeconomic model to determine the potential global and individual country outcomes of improving the population’s physical activity levels while also taking into account changes in demographic composition over time.

If the first scenario were carried out and every adult completed the baseline recommendations for physical activity, global GDP could increase by between $134 billion and $446 billion by 2050.If the third scenario were carried out and all adults increased their physical activity, global GDP could increase by between $524 billion and $760 billion by 2050.

Due to its size, the U.S. economy would experience the biggest impacts in the third scenario — U.S. GDP would increase by $138-200 billion by 2050. China would be the second-most impacted country, with increases to its GDP estimated to fall between $100-$146 billion. Germany and the UK would see the next greatest impacts — RAND estimated both countries’ GDP’s would increase by $15-22 billion.

The analysts determined that reduced levels of presenteeism — when employees show up to work but are not able to function to their fullest ability — would account for a whopping 70 percent of the estimated gains to GDP. This points to what the analysts interpret as “a significant relationship between inactivity and productivity loss.”

Another major factor contributing to the estimated increases to GDP by 2050 is the effect that a widespread increase in physical activity would have on the demand for health care services. Findings suggest that billions of dollars in global health care could be saved, amounting to an estimated $16-20.6 billion globally by 2050.

The analysts acknowledge that such a widespread change would be difficult, but the payoff would be immense in terms of creating healthier and more prosperous societies.