Are exercise and the economy connected?

The value of employer-sponsored wellness programs has been debated ever since the first employer offered to pony up with the goal of making workers healthier–and, by extension, happier and more productive.

Now, a new academic study from the independent nonprofit research institute RAND Europe delivers the latest data showing a true relationship between global economic growth and physical activity, even if it’s not driven by a full-blown wellness program.

Related: Read all of our coverage of wellness topics here.

Commissioned by Vitality, which offers an interactive, personalized wellness program, the study reveals significant benefits to gross domestic product, workplace productivity and life expectancy–if physical activity levels increase globally.

According to the study, the economic improvement would be linked to lower mortality rates (more people alive and contributing to the economy), reduced absenteeism and lower “presenteeism,” driven largely by the impact of physical activity on mental health. In terms of economic benefits, the study reports that if all adults aged 18-64 walked just 15 minutes more a day, the world economy could grow by an average of $100 billion a year until 2050. In addition to productivity, mortality would also improve–ranging from 11% to 28%. Vitality estimates this to result in 2.5 years of additional life (based on an average 40-year-old male).

“This groundbreaking study provides proof of the relationship between physical activity, productivity, mortality and economic growth,” said Tal Gilbert, CEO of Vitality USA, in a company statement. “The stakes are enormous for the individual and for our society as a whole. This is why we are leading efforts with Vitality-linked insurers to make 100 million people 20% more active by 2025, as part of our global pledge.”

Since 2015, one of those insurers, John Hancock, has partnered with Vitality to reward its life-insurance holders for healthy behaviors, such as physical activity, mindfulness, improved nutrition and preventive screenings.

“When more people take small, everyday steps to improve their health and wellness, our society and global economies benefit. We’re proud to be a part of this important effort,” said Brooks Tingle, president and CEO of John Hancock.

RAND Europe used a “dynamic, multi-country macroeconomic” model to comprehensively assess the impact of physical inactivity on national economies on a consistent basis, allowing for an aggregation of the effect to the global economy. According to RAND Europe, the study followed a novel approach to synthesize the existing evidence on physical activity and mortality risk by taking study design and publication bias into account. It utilizes Vitality’s extensive proprietary data set on workplace health–derived from its Healthiest Workplace initiative in seven countries–to assess the relationship between physical activity and performance at work. It also combined the mortality and productivity effects into a single model to project the true economic cost of physical inactivity over time.

Related: Wellness program helping fight burnout

Hans Pung, president of RAND Europe, noted the significance of the study for policymakers and employers alike.

“The study points to a significant relationship between inactivity and productivity loss, driven largely by ill-health-related presenteeism,” he said. “We hope that these insights will support policymakers and employers with new perspectives on how to enhance the productivity of their populations.”


Learn more about the latest trends in employee wellness at HRE’s upcoming Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, set for April 15-17 at the Aria in Las Vegas.

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at