Regularly exercising at moderate levels – the minimum recommended by the American Heart Association — can add up to a savings of $2,500 a year in healthcare costs, according to a new study.
Savings in health care expenses can apply to either someone who has been diagnosed with heart disease or someone who has no risk factors, according to the study , whose lead author is Khurram Nasir , M.D., Medical Director of the Center for Healthcare Advancement & Outcomes at Baptist Health South Florida. Baptist Health funded the study.
The participants in the study who already had cardiovascular disease — specifically coronary artery disease, stroke, heart attack, arrhythmias or peripheral artery disease — had higher healthcare costs overall compared to those who did not have these health issues. But those patients from this group who regularly exercised at recommended levels logged average healthcare costs at about $2,500 lower than those who didn’t meet exercise guidelines.
To improve overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association  recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity.
Benefits Extend Beyond the Financial
Of course, the benefits of exercising regularly for those individuals with heart disease, or at least one risk factor, extend beyond the financial rewards.
“Even among an established high-risk group such as those diagnosed with heart disease or stroke, those who engaged in regular exercise activities reported a much lower risk of being hospitalized, (having) an emergency room visit and use of prescription medications,” says Dr. Nasir. “The message to the patient is clear: There is no better pill in reducing the risk of disease and healthcare costs than optimizing physical activity.”
Even those participants with no heart disease who exercised regularly — but had at most one cardiovascular risk factor — had yearly medical costs averaging about $500 lower than those who didn’t exercise.
The new study looked at data from a 2012 national survey sample of more than 26,000 Americans age 18 or older. People who were underweight, pregnant, or unable to walk up to 10 steps were excluded. Nearly half the participants who did not have cardiovascular disease, and almost one-third who did, reported meeting exercise guidelines for weekly moderate-to-vigorous activity.
Study Participants Were Asked This Question
Individuals in the study were classified as physically active based on their answers to the question: “Do you currently spend half hour or more in moderate to vigorous physical activity, at least five times a week?”
The study used the widely accepted definitions for moderate and vigorous physical activity: Moderate physical activity causes “only light sweating or a slight or moderate increase in breathing or heart rate and would include activities such as fast walking, raking leaves, mowing the lawn, or heavy cleaning.” Vigorous physical activity causes “heavy sweating or large increases in breathing or heart rate and would include activities such as running, race walking, lap swimming, aerobic classes, or fast bicycling.”
The healthcare expenditures considered by researchers included out-of‐pocket spending related to hospitalizations, prescribed medications, outpatient visits (hospital outpatient visits and office-based visits), emergency department (ED) visits, and other expenditures (including dental visits, vision aid, home health care, and other medical supplies). Among those with cardiovascular disease, the highest expenditures pertained to hospitalizations, followed by prescription medications and outpatient visits.
“These robust estimates for potential healthcare savings strongly support the AHA’s (American Heart Association’s) strategic goals for optimizing physical activity levels as a mean to favorably impact the increasing burden of cardiovascular disease and associated costs,” the study concluded.