Modest increases in physical activity for U.S. kids could save billions in future costs

For children, even getting in just a little more exercise each week can reduce obesity and related illnesses in adulthood, Bloomberg School of Public Health study finds

Blurred image of young boys playing soccer

Credit: istock

Keeping school kids active for even brief periods three times a week could reap major savings during their adult lives, according to a new study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The research determined that if 18 percent more U.S. elementary school children participated in 25 minutes of physical activity three times a week, the overall savings in medical costs and lost wages would amount to $21.9 billion over their lifetimes. Currently, 32 percent of children from ages 8 to 11 engage in that level of physical activity; the researchers say the savings would come if 50 percent of kids did so.

The findings were published today in the journal Health Affairs.

"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 study leader Bruce Y. Lee, executive director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center at the Bloomberg School. "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 also found that the 25-minute/three times a week standard would result in 340,000 fewer obese and overweight children, a reduction of more than 4 percent.

If all of the current 8- through 11-year-olds in the U.S. were held to that standard, the researchers say 1.2 million fewer youths would be overweight or obese, and the savings in medical costs and lost wages would amount to $62.3 billion.

Studies have shown that high body mass index, or BMI, at 18 is associated with high BMI throughout adulthood, increasing the risk of maladies such as diabetes and heart disease that can lead to high medical costs and productivity losses due to illness.

An overweight person's lifetime medical costs average $62,331 and lost wages average $93,075, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers. For an obese person, these amounts are even greater.

Lee notes that the study's projections of costs savings are likely an underestimate, since the benefits of physical activity go beyond weight to include improving mood, bone density, and muscle tone. In addition, the numbers represent savings for just one cohort of 8- to 11-year-olds, so every year that kids in that age group reach the recommended levels of physical activity, more than $60 million more would be saved.

The researchers determined that maintaining the current levels of activity for schoolchildren would result in 8.1 million of these youths being overweight or obese by 2020, which would cost $2.8 trillion in additional medical costs and lost wages over their lifetime.

The guideline of 25 minutes of activity three times a week comes from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

Read more from School of Public Health

Posted in Health

Tagged obesity, nutrition