Getting half of American 8- to 11-year-olds into 25 minutes of physical activity three times a week would save $21.9 billion in medical costs and lost wages over their lifetimes, new research suggests.

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Physical activity

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The relatively modest increase—from the current 32 percent to 50 percent of kids participating in exercise, active play, or sports that often—would also result in 340,000 fewer obese and overweight youth, a reduction of more than 4 percent, the study calculates.

“Physical activity not only makes kids feel better and helps them develop healthy habits, it’s also good for the nation’s bottom line,” says Bruce Y. Lee, executive director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University. “Our findings show that encouraging exercise and investing in physical activity such as school recess and youth sports leagues when kids are young pays big dividends as they grow up.”

The study, published in the journal Health Affairs, suggests an even bigger payoff if every current 8- through 11-year-old in the United States exercised 75 minutes over three sessions weekly. In that case, the researchers estimate, $62.3 billion in medical costs and lost wages over the course of their lifetimes could be avoided and 1.2 million fewer youths would be overweight or obese.

And the savings would multiply if not just current 8-to-11 year olds, but every future cohort of elementary school children upped their game.

Studies have shown that a high body mass index at age 18 is associated with a high BMI throughout adulthood and a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other maladies linked to excess weight. The illnesses lead to high medical costs and productivity losses. In recent decades, there has been what experts describe as a growing epidemic of obesity in the United States.

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Lee and colleagues from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center at Carnegie Mellon University developed a computer simulation using their Virtual Population for Obesity Prevention software. They plugged in information representing current US children to show how changes in physical activity as kids could affect them—and the economy—throughout their lifetimes.

The model relied on data from the 2005 and 2013 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Exercise totaling at least 25 minutes a day, three days a week, is a guideline developed for kids by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. The researchers found that maintaining the current low 32 percent compliance would result in 8.1 million of today’s 8- to 11-year-olds being overweight or obese by 2020. That would trigger $2.8 trillion in additional medical costs and lost wages over their lifetimes. An overweight person’s lifetime medical costs average $62,331 and lost wages average $93,075. For an obese person, these amounts are even greater.

“Even modest increases in physical activity could yield billions of dollars in savings,” Lee says.

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The costs averted are likely an underestimate, he says, as there are other benefits of physical activity that don’t affect weight, such as improving bone density, improving mood, and building muscle.

Lee says that the spending averted by healthy levels of physical activity would more than make up for costs of programs designed to increase activity levels.

“As the prevalence of childhood obesity grows, so will the value of increasing physical activity,” he says. “We need to be adding physical education programs and not cutting them. We need to encourage kids to be active, to reduce screen time and get them running around again. It’s important for their physical health—and the nation’s financial health.”

Funding for the research came from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

Original Study DOI: 10.1377/hlthaff.2016.1315

Article by Stephanie Desmon-JHU