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October 6, 2000
Contact: Tim Hensley
CDC, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention
& Health Promotion
(770) 488–5820

Lower Direct Medical Costs Associated with Physical Activity

The benefits of moderate physical activity are well known: lowered risk for heart attack and stroke, reducing weight, and improving mood. Researchers at CDC recently documented another major advantage - improving the health of the Nation’s health care expenditures. A study in the October issue of "The Physician and Sportsmedicine" found that physically active individuals had lower annual direct medical costs than did inactive people. The cost difference was $330 per person, based on 1987 dollars.

The potential savings if all inactive American adults became physically active could be $29.2 billion in 1987 dollars, or $76.6 billion in 2000 dollars.

This is the first study ever to examine direct medical costs associated with various levels of physical activity by reviewing actual medical expenditures. Previous studies in the field have used estimates to project the economic costs of physical inactivity. The CDC researchers analyzed the relationship between physical activity and medical expenditures from the 1987 National Medical Expenditures Survey (NMES), the most comprehensive healthcare information source available. They found that Americans 15 years and older who engaged in regular physical activity–at least 30 minutes of moderate or strenuous physical activity three or more times a week–had average annual direct medical costs of $1,019 versus costs of $1,349 for those who were inactive. Persons with health conditions that limited regular moderate physical activity were excluded from the study.

"This study has significant implications," said Jeffrey Koplan, M.D., M.P.H, Director of CDC. "It suggests that we can make a major impact on reducing health care costs by encouraging regular physical activity. The amount of physical activity required to make a difference is reasonable and well within the reach of most Americans."

The level of physical activity measured in this study was even more modest than current Federal guidelines of 30 minutes or more of moderate physical activity five or more days a week, suggesting that following current recommendations could yield even greater cost savings.

The study found that physically active people had fewer hospital stays and physician visits and used less medication than physically inactive people. The cost savings were consistent for men and women, for those with and without physical limitations, and even for smokers and nonsmokers. The biggest difference in direct medical costs was among women 55 and older, supporting the widely held belief that the potential gain associated with physical activity is especially high for older women. The authors state that "a population-wide strategy might produce cost savings among most adult age groups."

"We must make it easier for people to be active," said Dr. Koplan. "We need to make a serious national effort to promote physical activity and support changes in the environment that get people moving again."

Changes that promote physical activity may be as simple as improving the location and appearance of stairwells to encourage walking at work or as complex as the redesign of communities. Some communities have existing infrastructure that supports physical activity, such as sidewalks and bicycle trails, and work-sites, schools, and shopping areas in close proximity to residential areas. In many other areas, such community amenities need to be developed to foster walking and cycling as a regular part of daily activity.

To obtain a copy of the article, please call the press contact listed above. Additional information about physical activity is available at CDC’s website: or by calling toll-free 888-CDC-4NRG.

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This page last reviewed October 6, 2000

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