Increasing Childhood Physical Activity Could Save Billions

If 50% of children exercised 3 times per week, $21.9 billion could be saved, study finds.

Encouraging children to participate in sports and other physical activity allows them to develop healthy, lifelong habits that will benefit their health. Findings from a new study published by Health Affairs suggested that moderately increasing physical activity among elementary school children could avoid billions in health care spending.

The authors discovered that increasing the number of children aged 8 to 11 who participate in 25 minutes of physical activity 3 times per week to 50% could prevent $21.9 billion in medical costs and lost wages over their lifetime.

The moderate increase in exercise would result in 340,000 fewer obese and overweight children, according to the study. The authors reported that every year children achieve that level of physical activity, more than $60 billion will be saved.

"Physical activity not only makes kids feel better and helps them develop healthy habits, it's also good for the nation's bottom line," said study leader Bruce Y. Lee, MD, MBA. "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."

Numerous studies have shown that high body mass index (BMI) at age 18 is linked to high BMI throughout adulthood, which increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease. This can lead to high medical costs and wage losses due to illness.

In the study, the authors developed a computational model utilizing their Virtual Population for Obesity Prevention software to represent the population of children in the United States. The authors used this approach to show how changes in physical activity levels could affect long-term health and the economy.

Included in the study were data from the 2013 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the National Center for Health Statistics. Medical costs and lost wages were calculated using a second model that determined the lifetime effects of physical activity, according to the study.

The authors also examined various levels of physical activity. They started at the current average of 32% of children exercising for 25 minutes for 3 days and developed models for up to 100% of children meeting that threshold.

Maintaining the current level of physical activity would lead to 8.1 million youth becoming overweight or obese and $2.8 trillion in medical costs and lost wages, according to the study. The average medical costs of a person who is overweight is $62,331 with lost wages of approximately $92,075, while the costs of a patient with obesity is significantly higher.

"Even modest increases in physical activity could yield billions of dollars in savings," Dr Lee said.

The authors believe that their savings estimates may be underestimated since there are other benefits of physical activity that do not affect weight, including improved bone density, better mood, and building muscle, according to the study.

The costs associated with additional physical activity initiatives for children would be significantly offset by savings in medical spending, the authors wrote.

"As the prevalence of childhood obesity grows, so will the value of increasing physical activity," Dr Lee concluded. "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."