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Could you use a few hundred dollars? How about $2,500?
Then you might want to get moving.
Exercise is basically a wonder drug, something that researchers have described as a true “polypill,” the sort of substance that can somehow treat an incredibly broad range of medical conditions, from heart disease to metabolic disorders like diabetes to mental health issues.
But if it’s not convincing enough to know that working out makes you happier and healthier, all while improving your sleep quality and sex life, researchers have recently quantified the benefits of exercise in terms of cold hard cash.
Depending on the specific comparison you make, people who work out spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars less each year on health care than people who don’t get enough exercise, according to a study published recently in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Average savings for the average person getting enough exercise versus not getting enough exercise totaled $2,500.
“The message to the patient is clear: There is no better pill in reducing the risk of disease and healthcare costs than optimizing physical activity,” Dr. Khurram Nasir, senior author of the study and director of the Center for Healthcare Advancement & Outcomes and the High Risk Cardiovascular Disease Clinic at Baptist Health South Florida, said in a press release.
But what about the cost of gyms, you ask? Not necessary!
To work out enough to fit into the “adequate physical activity” group measured in the study, people had to report that they got at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each week. That’s about 30 minutes a day, five times in a one-week period.
Moderate activity is enough to cause “light sweating” and includes “fast walking, raking leaves, mowing the lawn, or heavy cleaning,” according to the definitions used by researchers. Vigorous activity “causes heavy sweating or large increases in breathing or heart rate” and includes “running, race walking, lap swimming, aerobic classes, or fast bicycling.”
What the data reveal
For this particular study, researchers analyzed the records of 26,239 adult Americans who had provided data on all health expenditures for a two year period of time. Participants self-reported physical activity and they also reported how much they spent for medical care. Medical expenses included prescriptions, hospitalizations, outpatient visits, emergency room trips, and any “other” expenses.
Researchers also divided participants into several different categories. The first breakdown was between people who do and do not have cardiovascular disease (CVD), including artery issues, stroke, heart failure, and other illnesses. One third of the surveyed group had CVD.
People without cardiovascular disease were split into three groups depending on their “risk profile” for cardiovascular problems. Some people fit into the “poor” category, meaning that their modifiable cardiovascular risk factors (including hypertension, diabetes, cholesterol issues, smoking, and obesity) didn’t look good; others were “average,” and the healthiest were “optimal.” Within every group, researchers compared the health spending of people who got enough exercise (that 150 minutes) to the spending of people who didn’t.
In every single case, people who got enough of physical activity (PA on the chart below) spent less on health care than those that didn’t.
Savings varied for different groups. For the healthiest people in the study, the difference between those who got the recommended level of exercise and those who didn’t was about $500. Very healthy people, in general, spend less on healthcare.
But that overall average of $2,500 per person is huge both on an individual level and, if we could encourage more people to get enough exercise in general, it’d be very significant on a national level.
Of all the “modifiable cardiovascular risk factors,” the one that’s considered most important is physical activity. It’s one thing that can definitely move people from the poor, non-optimal physical activity group to the optimal, optimal physical activity group.
This study could of course only observe a correlation effect; it doesn’t show that exercise was the reason these people spent less on healthcare and (presumably) were healthier. But the researchers did exclude anyone who might be too sick to exercise, suggesting this wasn’t just a case of people exercising less because they were already physically unable to do so. And everything we know about exercise indicates that it has the potential to lead to some pretty major reductions in how much people spend on healthcare.
So if you need yet another way to convince yourself to get a workout, take a look at your wallet.