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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Couch-potato Britain should get up, get out and get fit to help lighten the burden of unhealthy living on the economy, the government said on Thursday.
Britain is in 21st place in Europe in terms of physical activity and the government estimates the National Health Service spends 3,000 pounds ($5,000) every second combating illness which could be prevented by physical activity.
So the government wants the nation of avid armchair sports fans to hop on their bikes, dive into their local swimming pool, or dance themselves fit before the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
"We are a sport-loving nation but we are simply nowhere near as active as we should be," said Health Secretary Andy Burnham.
"We set ourselves the target of coming fourth in the 2012 Olympic medal tables, now I want us to aspire to fourth place in the physical activity league tables over the next 10 years."
Government efforts to make the world's third-fattest nation behind the United States and Mexico do some exercise has been an "orphan" policy with no department taking responsibility.
Now the Department of Health will adopt the physical activity drive, including a national dance campaign featuring Arlene Phillips, who the BBC dropped from the panel of judges on its "Strictly Come Dancing" television show last month, leading to accusations denied by the broadcaster of ageism.
Over 2.5 million people in Britain are on incapacity benefit, costing the taxpayer 13 billion pounds and industry 11 billion a year, the government said.
More than a third are on benefits because of mental health problems or muscular or skeletal disorders known to respond well to increased physical activity.
The government estimates a modest increase in activity among older people could cut hip fractures by 1 percent, saving over 200 million pounds a year, while a 20 percent increase in cycling would save the NHS more than 50 million a year in treatments.
"In England, if we can get just one percent of people on incapacity benefit back into the workplace through active lifestyles, this would save the Exchequer 36 million pounds and industry 31 million," Burnham said in a statement.
Reporting by Daniel Fineren; Editing by Steve Addison