Lifelong Exercise Adds Up to Big Health Care Savings

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Now, the National Cancer Institute scientists pulled records for 21,750 of the volunteers and began grouping them by workouts, noting changes over the decades. Did these men and women start exercising more or less often during their 20s, as young adults? Did they take up or abandon workouts in middle age? Or were they consistently active — or the reverse — throughout their lives?

Then, the researchers compared these groups and at least a year’s worth of their eventual Medicare claims. And they found notable disparities.

Those men and women who reported exercising moderately throughout their adult lives, walking or otherwise being in motion for a few hours most weeks, saved an average of $1,350 annually — or about 16 percent — on health care expenses after reaching age 65 compared to sedentary people.

Interestingly, a different group, who said they had changed their routines, ramping up how often they exercised during their 20s, gained even greater monetary bang from their exercise, saving an average of $1,874 annually on health care after age 65. Even if some of these exercisers then let their increased routines slide during middle age, reducing how often they worked out in their 40s and 50s, they still spent about $860 less on health care later than people who almost never exercised.

These data intimate that being active when we are young might have especially potent and lingering impacts on our health care costs as we age.

But even waiting until middle age to become active proved beneficial in this study. People who increased how often they exercised after age 40 later spent, on average, $824 less annually on health care than their inactive peers.

In other words, “it’s never too late to start” exercising, says Diarmuid Coughlan, a research associate at Newcastle University in England, who, as a research fellow at the National Cancer Institute, led the new study.