According to a new study of exercise and Medicare claims, becoming more physically active today might save us thousands of dollars in healthcare costs later. People who begin exercising before or during middle age save anywhere from $824 to $1,874 per year on health care expenditures after retirement, according to the study, and the earlier they begin, the larger the savings.
The study had certain limitations, such as the fact that it only included well-educated white men and women, but the findings show how much exercise may help people’s finances as well as their health.
At this point, we’ve figured out that we need to be moving. Physical activity is linked to a longer lifespan and a reduced risk of a variety of severe illnesses, including Type 2 diabetes, depression, cancer, arthritis, obesity, and dementia. Despite these allures, research shows that over half of all individuals in the United States rarely, if ever, exercise.
Personal and social expenses are associated with this ubiquitous physical stupor. According to a 2015 study, inactivity accounts for at least $117 billion in yearly health-care expenditures in the United States, or approximately 11% of total expenditures.
It’s less apparent if and to what degree getting up and exercising can help us save $117 billion, especially as we become older. According to past research, physically active older adults spend less on health care than other retirees, owing to the fact that they require fewer medical visits and drugs.
However, those and comparable studies only looked at exercise habits at one moment in time, usually when people were in their forties or fifties, and they don’t tell us what happens to health-care expenses if those habits change over time. They also can’t specify an ideal age to start or increase an exercise program for the purpose of our long-term finances and health, assuming there is one.
For the new study, which was published in February in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, researchers from the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other institutions decided to look for links between people’s activities at various ages and their health care costs years later.
The researchers began by consulting the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, a large-scale collection of data on over 500,000 older Americans, the majority of whom are white, who are members of the AARP. These research participants consented to fill out lengthy questionnaires on their life and health.
One of these was a lengthy questionnaire that asked participants how many hours per week they had spent exercising or participating in sports at various times during their life. Many of the research participants also consented to provide investigators access to their Medicare claims after they enrolled in the insurance program so that they could keep track of their health-care costs.
Scientists from the National Cancer Institute then gathered information for 21,750 of the participants and categorized them by exercise to track changes over time. Did these men and women begin exercising more or less frequently as young adults in their 20s? Did they resume or quit their exercises when they approached middle age? Or did they remain active — or inactive — throughout their lives?
The researchers then compared the groups, as well as at least a year’s worth of Medicare claims. And they discovered some significant differences.
When compared to inactive adults, men and women who exercised moderately throughout their adult lives, walking or otherwise being in motion for a few hours most weeks, saved an average of $1,350 year — or nearly 16 percent — on health care costs after reaching age 65.
Surprisingly, a distinct group of people who claimed they modified their habits and increased how often they exercised in their 20s saw even more financial benefits from their exercise, saving an average of $1,874 per year on health care once they became 65. Even if some of these exercisers let their enhanced routines go throughout middle age, lowering how often they worked out in their 40s and 50s, they still spent $860 less on health care later than individuals who rarely exercised.
These findings suggest that being physically active while we’re young may have particularly powerful and long-lasting effects on our health-care costs as we get older.
However, in this study, even waiting until middle age to begin exercising was helpful. After age 40, people who increased their exercise frequency spent $824 less per year on health care than their sedentary counterparts.
In other words, according to Diarmuid Coughlan, a research associate at Newcastle University in England, who conducted the current study as a research fellow at the National Cancer Institute, “it’s never too late to start” exercising.
Of course, because this was an observational research, it can only prove that being active is linked to lower health-care expenditures, not that exercise causes costs to decrease. It also relied on people accurately recalling and reporting their pasts, which may be difficult.
Despite this, Charles Matthews, a cancer epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute who reviewed the current study, believes that “this is fairly solid data” given the size of the sample and scope of the questionnaires.
He stated that the data “reaffirm the value of physical activity,” regardless of age.