Most of us know that exercise is an important aspect of staying healthy. Physical activity can extend our life expectancy and reduce our risks for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. By positively impacting mental health and productivity at work, regular exercise can also play a vital part in supporting the global economy, as evidenced by a November 2019 study from Rand Europe.

Specifically, the study found that the global gross domestic product could increase by $316 billion to $446 billion by the year 2050 if the most inactive adults met the World Health Organization’s guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week. If the entire world’s adult population met the WHO’s guidelines, those numbers jump to an estimated $524 billion to $760 billion by 2050.

Exercise Increases Productivity at Work

It does not come as a surprise that the more active employees are, the more productive they are at their place of employment. Additional studies back up this thinking, like the 2015 landmark study by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. It describes the impact of health risks on productivity in the workplace by explaining that employees lose a portion of their productivity potential for each health risk they possess. Insufficient physical activity, while a health risk on its own, is a contributing factor to chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and depression. The Rand Europe study looks at this idea on a global scale.

If adults around the globe were more physically active, as the Rand Europe study proposes, we would see global reductions in mortality risk, absences from work due to illness (absenteeism), and decreased productivity while at work due to illness (presenteeism). This would supply the global economy with a larger, more productive workforce, which would be beneficial to the global GDP. Additionally, the benefit of increased physical activity would be even larger in the countries with the highest percentage of physically inactive people, like the U.S., because of our proportionally greater national income compared to the rest of the world. As of 2018, which is the most-recent year with available data, the U.S.’s GDP was nearly $7 billion more than China, the country with the world’s second-highest GDP.

The Importance of a Healthy Workforce

Studies have shown that increased activity during the day can result in improved concentration, decreased fatigue and better mental health resulting in a better overall quality of life. There is a growing body of evidence that organizations with robust wellness programs have employees that are more health-conscious with their behavior, which can lead to a happier and more productive workforce. As an added bonus, both employers and employees may experience a monetary benefit in the form of reduced health care costs. For example, a 2010 Harvard University study found that, on average, for every dollar spent on wellness programs, there was a $3.27 return on investment from reduced medical costs.

As a strategic ally, Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin Workforce Health is proud to offer employers a comprehensive range of expert care options including annual health appraisals, wellness coaching, onsite clinics and occupational health services. Learn more about our Workforce Health services.

Kirsten Larson, MD
About the Author

Kirsten Larson, MD, is the medical director for Workforce Health Wellness, Workplace Clinics and FastCare Clinics at the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network. Dr. Larson is a family practice physician with expertise in urgent care. She also has a master’s degree in health administration informatics from Northwestern University.