Increasing the percentage of elementary school
children in the United States who participate in 25
minutes of physical activity three times a week from
32 percent to 50 percent would avoid $21.9 billion
in medical costs and lost wages over the course of
their lifetimes, new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School
of Public Health research suggests.
The findings, published May 1 in Health Affairs,
suggest that just a small increase in the frequency
of exercise among children ages 8 through 11 would
also result in 340,000 fewer obese and overweight
youth, a reduction of more than 4 percent.
If all current 8- through 11-year-olds in the United
States exercised 25 minutes a day, three times a
week, the researchers suggest that $62.3 billion in
medical costs and lost wages over the course of
their lifetimes could be avoided and 1.2 million
fewer youths would be overweight or obese.
These numbers represent cost savings for one cohort
of 8-to-11 year olds, so every year that children in
this age group reach those levels of physical
activity, over $60 billion more would be saved.
“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, MD, MBA, executive director of
the Global Obesity Prevention Center at the
“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.”
Studies have shown that a high body mass index (BMI)
at 18 is associated with a high BMI throughout
adulthood and increases the subsequent risk of
developing maladies such as diabetes and heart
disease associated with being overweight or obese,
which can lead to high medical costs and
productivity losses due to illness.
In recent decades, there has been a growing epidemic
of obesity in the United States.
For the study, Lee and his colleagues, including
team members from the Bloomberg School and the
Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center at Carnegie Mellon
University, developed a computational simulation
model utilizing their VPOP (Virtual Population for
Obesity Prevention) software platform to represent
the current population of U.S. children and to show
how changes in levels of physical activity could
affect them throughout their lifetime and the
resulting economic impact.
The model relied on data from the 2005 and 2013
National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)
and on information from the National Center for
The medical costs and the lost wages were calculated
in the second model, which looked at the lifetime
effects of physical activity.
The researchers also looked at various levels of
healthy physical activity, starting with the current
average of 32 percent of children 8 to 11 who
exercise for 25 minutes a day, three days a week, up
to 100 percent doing so. That is a guideline
developed by the Sports and Fitness Industry
The researchers found that maintaining the current
level of physical activity 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 lifetimes.
An overweight person’s lifetime medical costs
average $62,331 and lost wages average $93,075. For
an obese person, these amounts are even greater.
“Even modest increases in physical activity could
yield billions of dollars in savings,” Lee says.
The costs averted are likely an underestimate, he
says, as there are other benefits of physical
activity that don’t impact weight, such as improving
bone density, improving mood and building muscle.
Lee says that the spending averted by healthy levels
of physical activity would more than make up for
costs of programs designed to increase activity
“As the prevalence of childhood obesity grows, so
will the value of increasing physical activity,” he
says. “We need to be adding physical education
programs and not cutting them.
We need to encourage kids to be active, to reduce
screen time and get them running around again.
It’s important for their physical health – and the
nation’s financial health.”
For more information
“odeling the Economic and Health Impact of
Increasing Children's Physical Activity in the
Bruce Y. Lee; Atif Adam; Eli Zenkov; Daniel
Hertenstein; Marie C. Ferguson; Peggy I. Wang;
Michelle S. Wong; Patrick Wedlock; Sindiso Nyathi;
Joel Gittelsohn; Saeideh Fala-Fini; Sarah M. Bartsch;
Lawrence J. Cheskin; and Shawn T. Brown.