New Study Shows Being Sedentary is Bad for Physical and Fiscal Health

Creative Commons photo (cropped): Flickr/hjl

There is no magic bullet that will guarantee good health.  That’s just an unfortunate fact of life.  But there is something that can help stave off heart disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, and depression, while also helping us maintain a higher quality of life as we get older.  And it’s largely free and accessible to just about everyone: physical activity.

We’ve written a lot over the years here on Cancer News in Context about the benefits of being active, but not very much about the economic costs of being inactive – both for individuals and for the nation as a whole.  Yet, with the nation growing older and health care costs continuing to accelerate, there’s a fantastic need to highlight effective and simple approaches to address such issues. And a new study out this month in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases highlights just how important regular physical activity is to the physical and economic health of the nation.

The study assessed data from approximately 51,000 individuals who were included in both the federal National Health Interview Survey from 2004 – 2010 and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey from 2006 – 2011.  Women who were pregnant and people who said they were unable to be physically active were not included in the study.

The researchers found that those individuals who got less than recommended levels of physical activity (less than 150 minutes of moderate activity per week) spent on whole 11 percent more on health care than those who did meet recommended levels (150 minutes or more of moderate activity per week), even when taking obesity and overweight into account.  Those who were completely inactive had the highest levels of expenditure.  Those who got some activity but not enough to meet guidelines did better but still spent more than those who were more active.

Even after removing people from the study who could be active but had trouble walking due to health issues, the general relationship remained.  Those who didn’t meet activity guidelines still spent significantly more (nearly 9 percent more) than those who did.

Based on these estimates, regular physical activity saved each person on average more than $1300 in yearly health care spending compared to someone completely sedentary, and close to $600 yearly compared to someone who was active but not enough to meet guidelines.   This translates to about $117 billion each year nationally for health care spending due to inadequate levels of activity.

For such an important and seemingly simple thing – lacing up shoes and going for the equivalent of a brisk walk for 20 – 30 minutes a day – only about half of the nation actually gets enough activity to meet federal guidelines.  Some of this points to individuals, since we’re the ones who ultimately choose to go for a walk or not, but it also points to broader societal issues that need to be addressed.  It’s hard to be more active when your neighborhood isn’t safe or if there aren’t any affordable gyms or if you’re working three jobs that give little time off.

As this study – and others – have consistently shown, getting people to be more active needs to remain a public health priority.  Our physical health and financial health are directly tied to it.  National programs like Let’s Move are setting good standards to work from, but we still need more innovative approaches to foster and support active lifestyles.  Our experience with tobacco has shown that major progress is possible with concerted efforts and broad buy-in from individuals, businesses, schools, and governments.  While there’s been some good movement on that front related to physical activity, we’re still a long way from realizing its true potential.

We’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other until we get there.

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