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Walking 5,000 steps three times per week could save the NHS £15 billion

12 March 2024

5,000 steps three times a week could save the NHS billions

New research published by Vitality, the next-generation health and life insurer, and the London School of Economics, shows that NHS hospital costs could be reduced by as much as £15 billion per year if half of the UK’s inactive adult population began consistently walking 5,000 steps once a week, and those who have poor exercise habits began consistently walking 5,000 steps three times per week. 

The research titled ‘The Habit Index’ mapped the behaviours and habits of more than 1 million Vitality Programme members[1] to determine the best ways to form and maintain healthy habits, and to understand the science of how healthy habits can lead to longer, healthier lives.

As the UK grapples with a growing health burden and public health services continue to be strained, the research sheds light on the small changes that people can make to improve their health and the significant impact that habitual exercise could have to protect the health service.

It is estimated that 35% of the UK population are currently inactive[2], which is contributing to declining health and increased levels of non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, and thus increased incidence of hospitalisation. The Vitality research shows that if half of this group achieved 5,000 steps once a week, the reduction in hospitalisation could lead to an estimated annual saving of £4 billion for the NHS. In addition, if those who currently have poor exercise habits (for example non-habitual exercise) were to consistently do 5000 steps three times per week, this saving increases to £15bn.

The benefit to the individual 

Small changes to create and sustain healthier habits could have a significant impact on the UK’s healthcare systems, due to the positive impact on individuals’ health. Major positive impacts were seen at all age groups; however, this was particularly true for older generations. People aged 65+ saw a 52% reduction in their mortality risk after sustaining a habit of 7,500 steps three or more times a week. This is significantly greater than those aged 45-65, who saw a 38% reduction in their mortality risk, and the total population, who saw a 27% reduction. 

The research indicates that doing 7,500 steps per day on average achieves the bulk of the reduction in common-cause mortality. Beyond 7,500 steps, the health improvements become more incremental.

On average across all age groups, those who sustain a healthy physical activity habit – at least 5,000 steps three times per week for two years can - add between 2.5 years (for men) and 3 years (for women) to their life expectancy.

Habitual exercise lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes 

The research analysed the impact of forming and sustaining a physical activity habit on an individual’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes. People who sustain a habit of 10,000 steps, 3 times a week, for three years can reduce their type 2 diabetes risk by up to 41%. Increasing the frequency of exercise to four or more times a week saw a 57% reduction in risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

Similarly, there are major benefits for those with the condition already. A 55-year-old with type 2 diabetes who changes from limited physical activity to sustain a habit of 5,000 steps three times a week, reduces their all-cause mortality risk by 40%. 

It is estimated that 4.8m people have diabetes in the UK, with type 2 diabetes accounting for 90%, with 10% of the NHS annual budget spent on diabetes treatments.[3] 

Incentivising and sustaining healthy habits 

The Habit Index sheds light on the science of habit formation to understand how we can build habitual exercise habits and improve health. It shows that the most enduring physical activity habits are formed gradually, in laddered increments, starting with a lower target.

The three steps for creating robust habits are:
1. Set the target based on aims and existing health status.
2. Start small, set achievable goals and focus on building frequency and consistency of exercise rather than intensity. 
3. Repeat then intensify: Keep up the activity to form the habit and only increase the intensity once the action has been repeated for between 6 and 8 weeks. 

One of the fundamental challenges in embedding a preventative approach to health is bridging the gap between what we know we should do to remain healthy – and what we do. Incentives and personalised rewards can help bridge this gap in the beginning, as we gradually build up healthy habits, after which behaviours become automatic and resilient to change. Tailored incentives, coupled with a scientific understanding of how to form and sustain habits, can help people live longer, healthier lives.

Adrian Gore, Founder of Discovery Vitality, said: “Healthy habits can profoundly extend the quality and length of life. Our data shows the impact is not only significant but applies across ages, risk factors, and health statuses – maintaining a small amount of physical activity has lasting health impacts. Given the role of behaviour in health risk globally, a better understanding of the mechanisms of habits can be a powerful way to improve individual health – and to evolve our healthcare systems to prioritise preventive health.”

Neville Koopowitz, Vitality CEO, said: “This research clearly shows the power of small behavioural changes and the significant impact these can have on health and wellbeing. Taking consistent steps to achieve a healthy habit is key, and we can see from this data that it’s never too late to start.  This approach to habitual physical activity and exercise has the potential to completely transform and improve our collective health. Through incentivising behaviour change, we can form and sustain healthy habits, which has significant potential within preventative healthcare and supporting people to live healthier for longer.

Professor Joan Costa-Font, London School of Economics said: “The findings of this study are a clear call to action for policy makers to promote prevention in public health and build on the power of healthy habits to improve individual and collective health outcomes. Successful habit-based interventions can lengthen life expectancy, entail considerable savings for public health services, improve productivity, and help address the significant long-term challenges posed by mental health, social isolation, and non-communicable diseases such as cancer and type 2 diabetes.”

Notes to editors:
[1] 1,000,000 people in the UK and South Africa between 2013-2023.  
2 Guthold R, Stevens GA, Riley LM, Bull FC. Worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity from 2001 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 358 population-based surveys with 1·9 million participants. Lancet Glob Health. 2018 Oct;6(10).
3 How Many People Have Diabetes - Diabetes Prevalence Numbers 

Recognising the pivotal role that habits play in shaping health outcomes, Vitality has developed a data-driven tool to quantify habit formation: the Vitality Habit Index. 
In total, the study looked at the habits of over 1 million Vitality members across South Africa and the UK over a ten-year period, mapping their behaviours to understand how to make healthier habits, and consequently displace unhealthy habits. 
This tool scientifically defines habits using verifiable data related to physical activity and nutrition. Vitality built a predictive model per member using the previous six weeks of a member’s data to predict the behaviour or action in the seventh week, and thus understand how well past behaviour predicts future behaviour.
Through its development, Vitality aims to understand the impact of lifestyle choices and behaviours on health, understand why individuals struggle to adhere to exercise goals, identify how to cultivate healthy habits, and discern which habits are more likely to endure. 

About Vitality
Vitality is part of Discovery Limited, a worldwide insurer and investment manager impacting more than 30 million lives in over 40 markets, across Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and Oceania.          
Vitality pioneered the ‘shared-value’ insurance model, a unique approach based on the scientifically proven principles of behavioural economics. Through this model, Vitality helps members take a more active role in managing their own wellness, encouraging them to develop healthy long-term habits that are good for them, good for the company and good for society. The effect is positive for all stakeholders – members benefit from better health, financial rewards and additional incentives; employers benefit from healthier, more productive, and more engaged employees; and Vitality benefits from a healthier membership base.  

Vitality Ambassadors Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, Heather Knight, Tracey Neville, Ellie Simmonds, Jos Buttler, Maro Itoje, Joe Root and Jonny Wilkinson are role models who embody the company’s values. They use their passion for living a healthy, active lifestyle to motivate others to make positive changes, promoting the message that taking small steps today can dramatically improve wellbeing over the long-term.  
Vitality current has 1.8 million members in the UK.  We employ 2,600 people in our London, Bournemouth, Stockport, and Johannesburg offices.

About Discovery
Discovery Limited is a South African-founded financial services organisation that operates in the healthcare, life assurance, short-term insurance, banking, savings and investment and wellness markets. Since inception in 1992, Discovery has been guided by a clear core purpose – to make people healthier and to enhance and protect their lives. This has manifested in its globally recognised Vitality Shared-Value insurance model, active in over 35 markets with over 20 million members. The model is exported and scaled through the Global Vitality Network, an alliance of some of the largest insurers across key markets including AIA (Asia), Ping An (China), Generali (Europe), Sumitomo (Japan), John Hancock (US), Manulife (Canada) and Vitality Life & Health (UK, wholly owned). Discovery trades on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange as DSY.

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