Absences from work increase the price tag of physical inactivity

A recent study provides new information on the costs of physical inactivity. The study focuses on the costs incurred by absences from work in relation to the level of physical activity. The results show that the annual costs among middle-aged individuals were around €200 to €500 higher among physically inactive compared with the costs among physical active. The study was conducted by the universities of Oulu and Jyväskylä and the Department of Sports and Exercise Medicine, Oulu Deaconess Institute Foundation sr.

The study calculated the observed costs of absences from work in 2012–2020 and made predictions about the costs up to the natural retirement age of the participants. Costs in this context refer, for example, to an individual’s lost earnings as a result of long periods of sickness absences or disability pensions.

The results show that the average individual-level costs were higher among physically inactive than the costs among physically active. The difference in observed costs in 2012–2020 between people with high levels of physical activity and people with lower physical activity was €4,300 on average. On an annual basis, this means around €480. If the costs were calculated up to retirement age, the difference between people with high levels of physical activity and people with lower physical activity was almost €9,000.

“There are costs due to sickness absences and disability pensions, regardless of whether we are highly active or not. However, the results show that people who are physically inactive have on average considerably higher costs than people who are physically active,” says corresponding researcher Jaana Kari from Jyväskylä University and ODL Sports Clinic.

The participants’ physical activity was measured by questionnaires at the ages of 31 and 46, and also by an accelerometer at the age of 46.

“In this study, we used both self-reported and accelerometer-measured physical activity data. In the light of previous studies, we know that there is a difference in the amount of physical activity depending on the measurement method. The difference is explained, among other things, by the fact that the self-reported physical activity usually refers to leisure-time physical activity, while the accelerometer-measured data takes into account all the physical activity during the day,” says project manager Anna-Maiju Leinonen from University of Oulu and ODL Sports Clinic.

The data were drawn from the Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1966 study, in which the cohort members have been followed from the prenatal period onwards. The data combines individual-level register-based data on sickness absences, disability pensions, and earnings.

“What is new in this study compared to previous ones is that the costs were calculated using individual-level data on both physical activity and absences from work,” Kari says.

In addition to the costs at the individual level, absences from work also incur costs for employers and society.

“It is important to note that although the costs were calculated from the perspective of the individual, sickness absences and disability pensions also incur costs for the employer and society,” Kari points out.

The study is part of the SEPAS project, which examines the costs of physical inactivity to society, employers and individuals. The project is carried out in cooperation between the University of Oulu, Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics, and the Department of Sports and Exercise Medicine, Oulu Deaconess Institute Foundation sr. The project combines the population-based Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1966 data with register-based individual-level data on direct (healthcare) and indirect (earnings, absences from work) costs. The study is funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The results were published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Kari JT, Nerg I, Huikari S, Leinonen A-M, Nurkkala M, Farrahi V, Korpelainen R, Korhonen M. 2022. The individual-level productivity costs of physical inactivity. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 55(2); 255–263. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000003037.

Last updated: 16.2.2023