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Published: 2013-02-13 00:00:00

Physical inactivity is costing the country a fortune, according to a new joint local government study.

Auckland Council. Waikato Regional Council and the Wellington Regional Strategy Committee (which represents all the councils in the Wellington region) recently commissioned the study to examine the full costs of physical inactivity in their regions.

The study released today during the Wellington Regional Strategy Committee meeting shows that physical inactivity in the Auckland, Waikato and Wellington regions, where about half the country’s population live, costs $648 million a year. The cost for the whole country was approximately $1.3 billion or 0.7 per cent of total GDP in 2010. 

Using what’s known as full cost accounting, the study found that physical inactivity cost $402 million in Auckland, $106 million in Waikato and $140 million in Wellington. 

“That’s a significant cost to the Waikato, and we have recognised that local government has an important role to play in enabling everyone in our community to be active,” says Norm Barker, Waikato’s regional transport committee chair and regional councillor. 

“In the Waikato, there are a number of strategies and plans the regional council has in place which support the development of facilities and enable physical activity amongst people of all ages. 

“With significant support from local councils, a number of very popular trails have been built that crisscross the Waikato. These trails support increased physical activity, providing safe and beautiful environments for people with all ranges of abilities. 

“Some of these tracks have been hugely popular. Last month alone, 11,500 people were counted on the Hauraki Rail Trail from Paeroa to Waikino, and in the 13 months since the Waikato River Trails was opened, in excess of 33,000 have used it,” says Cr Barker. 

He said local councils also play an important role in providing such things as parks and sport and leisure facilities. 

The region’s public transport system, operated by Waikato Regional Council, has benefits other than helping to reduce congestion and providing a vital service for its five million passengers. “Just the simple act of walking to and from the bus stop, and in some cases your destination, means buses contribute to getting people active,” says Cr Barker. 

Meanwhile, through the Waikato Regional Land Transport Strategy the council encourages territorial authorities to undertake health impact assessments, where appropriate, as a tool in integrated transport planning. In developing its proposed district plan, Hamilton City Council worked alongside the Waikato DHB to complete a health impact assessment on Hamilton central city residential intensification. The assessment focused on accessibility, including sporting and recreational pursuits and pedestrian access, connectivity and public transport, and public and open space. All of these have direct or indirect links to physical activity. 

Sir John Anderson, Chair of the Wellington Regional Strategy Committee, says physical inactivity is globally recognised as the fourth-leading cause of death and a global public health priority. 

“It is as serious a risk factor as smoking or obesity in causing a range of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. 

“Local government plays an important role in motivating and providing the infrastructure for people’s physical activity, including providing transport infrastructure, active transport opportunities such as cycling, walking, public transport, walking buses, urban design and land use planning, and provision of parks and sport and leisure facilities,” he says. 

The costs of physical inactivity are separated into direct health costs associated with treatment in the health care system, indirect health costs associated with living with disability/disease and dying prematurely and other costs associated with physical inactivity, including promoting activity and information campaigns relating to physical wellbeing. 

The study found that the costs of treating cardiovascular diseases attributed to physical inactivity are the highest, and of cardiovascular diseases, strokes are the costliest. Coronary heart disease had the highest indirect costs for all regions, largely due to the high mortality rates associated with this disease. This was followed by colorectal cancer in Wellington and Auckland, whereas, in Waikato stroke was second highest. 

The commissioning of a joint report such as this is a new approach for councils, and may give them the ability to understand the true costs of aspects of our economy or environment that never get properly valued. 

“The economic impacts of physical inactivity in Auckland, Wellington and Waikato are considerable,” he says. 

“We’re concerned about this because of the costs of health to everyone. As councils, if we can help reduce the impact on that system then some of those savings could be re-directed to other areas.” 

You can read the report online by visiting

Additional information:

Regional summary of Direct, Indirect and Other Costs attributed to physical Inactivity (2010) 




Direct costs 

Indirect costs

‘Other’ costs*

Total costs

($ million)

Premature Deaths



















New Zealand












*Note: ‘Other’ costs are preliminary estimates

** Totals may not equal, due to rounding


Note: Physical inactivity is a serious public health issue in New Zealand, as it is in many other countries of the world. In a recent major report by the Lancet medical journal, New Zealand ranked 27th out of 122 countries for being physically inactive, with nearly 50 per cent of the population not engaging in enough physical activity. Australia, our nearest neighbour and often our benchmark for international comparisons, did better than New Zealand, rating 52nd with 38 per cent of the population inactive.