The Conference Board of Canada report estimates that benefits would begin to show as early as 2020 if — starting next year — even one in 10 Canadians were to sit less and increase daily physical activity.
The study predicts such changes would reduce the incidence of hundreds of thousands of cases of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease over the next 25 years, and would mean 31,000 fewer cases of cancer.
The Conference Board suggests such reductions in chronic illnesses would save $45 million in health-care costs by 2020, $126 million by 2030 and $167 million by 2040 — equating to $2.6 billion in today's dollars.
The report also suggests that premature mortality would decline by 2.4 per cent by 2020 alone, representing more than 6,600 lives saved.
The authors say most Canadian adults spend most of their waking hours sitting, and only about 15 per cent get the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity.
"The reduction in premature mortality and, to a lesser extent, reduced numbers of people on disability and fewer days lost to absenteeism, would mean more workers available for the labour force," said co-author Thy Dinh, a senior research associate with the Conference Board.
"As a result, economic activity would receive a substantial boost. Improving the health status of Canadians through increased physical activity and reduced sedentary behaviour can lead to longer, healthier lives, and the expected productivity gains would be of significant benefit to the entire country."
The report estimates that Canada's gross domestic product would rise by $230 million in 2020, $931 million in 2030 and nearly $1.6 billion by 2040 — a cumulative $7.5 billion over the full period — with this modest increase in Canadians' levels of physical activity.
"Canadians spend most of their waking hours sitting and get insufficient activity, a recipe for the promotion of hypertension, diabetes and even premature mortality," said Dr. Mark Tremblay, director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. "These new findings show that modest, achievable changes in movement behaviours can produce substantial and important improvements in health, and should be embraced."
Elio Antunes, president and CEO of Participaction, said making the effort to become more physically active can be challenging when people's lives are so busy.
"But, you can't deny the health — and economic — benefits," Antunes said. "This research shows that real, measurable change is within our grasp. To achieve this change, we need to continue to provide and promote a wide variety of opportunities for Canadians to get active and maintain healthier lifestyles."