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Physical inactivity costs millions in health care expenses


Lack of physical activity is costly not just to people’s health but to their wallets as well, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that sedentary lifestyles can lead to higher medical costs, which they say are borne by consumers and employers in the form of health insurance premiums, member co-insurance and taxes to foot the bill for public health insurance. The findings, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, add to a growing body of evidence that physical inactivity is a serious and expensive public health problem.

“In spite of the growing evidence for the importance of physical activity, most Americans have a sedentary lifestyle,” write Nancy A. Garrett, Ph.D., of HealthPartners, and colleagues. “This analysis puts a dollar figure on the direct cost of physical inactivity in a health plan population.”

Garrett and colleagues estimated the total medical expenditures attributable to physical inactivity patterns among all 1.5 million adult members of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota in the year 2000. They found that the health plan spent $83.6 million — or $56 per member — for medical care and pharmacy costs for diseases associated with inactivity.

Heart disease was the most expensive outcome of physical inactivity, costing the health plan $35.3 million in 2000. Hypertension ($10.8 million), stroke ($9.2 million), depression and anxiety ($9.1 million), and type 2 diabetes ($7.2 million) also accounted for a large portion of the health plan’s year 2000 medical expenditures related to physical inactivity. The costs of breast cancer, osteoporosis and colon cancer together totaled $12 million. The estimates could have been much higher if obesity, a risk factor for the diseases included in the study, had been included in the analysis, the researchers note.

The study also reported that a quarter of Minnesotans age 18 and older engaged in no leisure-time physical activity in 2000. About half (49 percent) of the population was sometimes active and one-fourth (27 percent) of the population was regularly active. The investigators conclude that the $83.6 million figure “puts the abstract concept of physical activity as a public health issue into a concrete form that is meaningful to a wide variety of stakeholders.”

Once the dollar costs of physical inactivity are made clear, communities, health plans, employers that pay for health insurance and local governments might be more willing to invest time and money in physical activity promotion, the researchers suggest.

The data analyzed came from two sources: the health plan members’ medical claims records and the 2000 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System results for Minnesota.

The BRFSS is a national system of statewide surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that gathers information about physical activity patterns in the states. The BRFSS results for Minnesota approximate the physical activity patterns of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota members.

Chris Reese | EurekAlert!
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