While doctors and other health experts have long sought to promote physical activity as a way to stay as healthy as possible, there have been few studies looking at how physical activity affects healthcare costs — costs that are borne not just by individuals in the form of copayments and other out-of-pocket costs, but also by society more broadly in the form of higher health insurance premiums and the taxes that finance various public insurance programs. Since greater physical activity is likely to have long-term health benefits, the researchers were interested in looking at whether a lifetime of physical activity leads to savings in older age, when healthcare costs tend to be highest.
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The researchers used Medicare claims data from 1999 to 2008, and compared the costs associated with these healthcare claims with responses given as part of the National Institutes of Health-American Association of Retired Persons (NIH-AARP) Diet and Health Study. Specifically, the researchers looked at nine different patterns of physical activity throughout adulthood, and how these patterns of physical activity were linked to healthcare costs. (Medicare is the national public insurance program for adults ages 65 and older in the United States.)
Physical activity through middle age associated with lower healthcare costs
Compared with adults who were mostly inactive from adolescence through middle age, those who maintained at least moderate physical activity throughout this age range — or increased their physical activity in early adulthood or middle age — incurred significantly lower healthcare costs. Compared with consistently inactive adults, those who maintained moderate physical activity saw healthcare costs that were 15.9%, or $1,350, lower on average each year. Those who maintained high physical activity had costs that were 14.1%, or $1,200, lower on average — showing that getting more physical activity may increase healthcare costs past a certain point, possibly due to greater “wear and tear” and injuries.
But even greater healthcare savings were seen in adults who increased their physical activity in early adulthood, who saw an average savings of 22%, or $1,874, each year in Medicare claims compared with inactive adults. Adults who waited until middle age to increase their physical activity saw an average savings of only 9.7%, or $824, compared with inactive adults. Out of the four patterns in the study that included a decrease in physical activity, only one pattern saw significant healthcare savings compared with consistently inactive adults — those who increased their activity in early adulthood but decreased it in middle age, who saw an average savings of 10.1%, or $861, each year compared with inactive adults.
These results broadly show that greater physical activity throughout adulthood is linked to healthcare savings after age 65, and that these savings tend to be greatest when people start or accelerate their exercise habits as early in adulthood as possible. “Our analyses suggest the healthcare cost burden in later life could be reduced through promotion efforts supporting physical activity participation throughout adulthood,” the researchers concluded.
Want to learn more about staying active? Read “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals,” “Making Exercise Fun,” and “Exercise Recovery Tips.”
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