Physical Activity Lowers Obese Workers' Healthcare Costs

Encouraging obese employees to engage in physical activity as little as once or twice a week ¯ even if they don't lose weight ¯ is an effective way for companies to reduce the costs of health coverage.

Led by Feifei Wang, Ph.D., of University of Michigan, the researchers examined the relationship between physical activity and healthcare costs in a group of approximately 23,500 healthy General Motors employees. About 30 percent of workers were classified as normal-weight, 45 percent as overweight, and 25 percent as obese. Annual health care costs averaged $2,200 for normal-weight, $2,400 for overweight, and $2,700 for obese employees.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that 21 percent of the total number of workers were classified as sedentary, with no regular physical activity. In the sedentary group, average healthcare costs were $2,300 for normal-weight, $2,500 for overweight and $3,000 for obese workers. For obese workers, being physically active lowered health care costs by $400 to $500, after adjustment for age, sex and health-related factors.

The savings were similar for workers classified as moderately active, with one or two days of physical activity per week; or very active, three or more days per week. Physical activity was defined as at least 20 minutes of exercise or work hard enough to increase heart rate and breathing.

Physical activity lowered costs for most categories of health problems. Based on their results, the researchers estimated that increasing levels of physical activity for sedentary obese workers would have saved about $790,000, or about 1.5 percent of healthcare costs for the whole group of 23,500 workers.

Despite efforts to promote weight control, rates of overweight and obesity continue to rise. Encouraging physical fitness in overweight and obese workers might offer an alternative way to improve health status, and thus reduce healthcare costs.

Being physically active can lower healthcare costs for obese, sedentary employees, the new results suggest. Modest increases in physical activity for example, 20 minutes of brisk walking once or twice per week reduce costs significantly, even without weight loss. "This indicates that physical activity behavior could offset at least some of the adverse effects of excess body fat, and in consequence, help moderate the escalating healthcare costs," Wang and colleagues conclude.

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